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Asheville powers up its data analytics office

Asheville, N.C., is powering up its Office of Data and Performance, a new initiative to increase transparency and provide data-driven accountability.

The city established the office in December to support a results-based, data-driven approach to city programs and to deliver clear communication about program goals, processes and performance.

The office will be organized as a cross-departmental team, consisting of staff working in budgeting, community engagement, equity, GIS and law enforcement. The initiative will be managed by the IT Services Department and staffed by three IT open data employees. The office’s initial goals are to help understand the impacts of city services and projects, establish baselines and benchmarks for improvement and to monitor performance and identify issues and respond proactively.

The effort “has been 10 years in the making,” Office of Data and Performance Manager Eric Jackson said on a Jan. 21 Q&A session on YouTube.

“We started out thinking primarily about the data itself, how do we get that data, how do we manage it, how do we put it out there for people to access,” he said. Over time, though, Jackson’s team started thinking more about how the city and the community could use the data.  Before long, they concluded that “disciplined performance management is really critical for our communication -- getting us on the same page about what the goals are and how we're going to tell whether we're making progress through those goals.”

The office won’t be delivering quick data-based solutions to problems, Jackson said. “This isn't a data service, it's not an analytics service. Our role in the city is really to help everybody on staff change how they do what they do,” he said.

This distinction becomes clear when thinking about law enforcement. “When you define public safety solely in terms of metrics that are related to enforcement, a couple of things become true,” Jackson said. “One, you put the burden on the police to solve the problems, [when] in many cases the police are not the right tool to address those problems,” he said. The second outcome is that just looking at enforcement data “blinds you to some of the alternative strategies that might be there,” he said.

Data and analytics projects have been bubbling up across the city. In September, Asheville’s Equity and Inclusion Department launched and equity dashboard to both give background and story behind what's going on, giving users a way to dig into the numbers. The Police Department recently released a transparency dashboard.

The new Office of Data and Performance will build on Asheville’s previous data efforts, including its GIS initiative, city dashboards, the SimpliCity application and the Open Data Portal. The Police Department recently released a transparency dashboard.

Eventually, Jackson wants to get to a point where city departments have standard way of sharing their data across all initiatives so that city managers and the community can use it to foster a deeper understanding of complex problems.

“That's really critical,” he said, “because it's never just the data, right?”

About the Author

Susan Miller is executive editor at GCN.

Over a career spent in tech media, Miller has worked in editorial, print production and online, starting on the copy desk at IDG’s ComputerWorld, moving to print production for Federal Computer Week and later helping launch websites and email newsletter delivery for FCW. After a turn at Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, where she worked to promote technology-based economic development, she rejoined what was to become 1105 Media in 2004, eventually managing content and production for all the company's government-focused websites. Miller shifted back to editorial in 2012, when she began working with GCN.

Miller has a BA and MA from West Chester University and did Ph.D. work in English at the University of Delaware.

Connect with Susan at [email protected] or @sjaymiller.

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