Denver learned the hard way that top-down data management isn’t for them. “We failed tremendously,” said Brian Elms, director of the city’s Peak Academy and Analytics. “We spent millions of dollars working with a contractor and three years trying to launch city-wide dashboards, and each week they would fail. Teams would point fingers and blame each other for messy data. In the end, we only successfully launched one out of 19 [planned] dashboards.”
So Elms and his colleagues, with the help of What Works Cities, went back to the drawing board, focusing instead on the democratization of data by teaching city employees to access and analyze the intel for themselves. Already, approximately 130 civil servants have been trained, and the results have been striking, Elms said. “We’ve never seen more enthusiasm and excitement for sharing data. Instead of telling employees how to do things, we’ve empowered them to help support their teams.”
The democratizing of data and analytics has helped the city in ways it never anticipated. The Parks & Recreation Forestry Office, for example, wanted to apply data to the city’s trees. “Now our team knows the condition of every tree in Denver,” Elms said. “If they need to treat it — or if it’s at risk of disease — they can see that on the dashboard that they build themselves.” Access to data is helping the tree team — and other teams throughout the city — make smarter decisions about the allocation of resources.
Elms shared Denver’s data success story at this week’s 2nd annual What Works Cities Summit in New York City, which has brought together 350 city leaders and front-line data and evidence practitioners. Launched in 2015 by Bloomberg Philanthropies, What Works Cities is a national initiative to help 100 mid-sized cities enhance their use of data and evidence to improve services, inform local decision making, and engage citizens.