New Grant Will Help Launch Civic Analytics Network

In recent years, city and local governments have increasingly used data to discover innovative new ways to improve their operations and serve their citizens. But the spread of these solutions between and within cities has been limited by obstacles including lack of replicability, resources, and technical expertise.

With support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Center for Data Science and Public Policy (DSaPP) at the University of Chicago and The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University will together create a new Civic Analytics Network for the development and sharing of these data-driven solutions.

DSaPP will partner with chief data officers (CDOs) from cities and counties to develop new analytic models focused on important policy areas, such as homelessness, job training, child protective services, neighborhood blight, and prevention of school dropouts and teen pregnancy. The DSaPP team will then work to transfer and adapt successful models to additional jurisdictions, as well as build a prototype analytics infrastructure to aid government implementation. 

“Cities have made big steps forward in how they use data, but until these data science solutions are easily scalable and sharable, the impact will be limited,” said Rayid Ghani, director of DSaPP, a joint initiative of UChicago’s Computation Institute and the Harris School of Public Policy. “This new network will help lower the scientific, technical and policy barriers that prevent data-driven tools from reaching their full potential to improve urban life.”

Over the past three years, DSaPP and its Eric and Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good Summer Fellowship have worked with government and nonprofit partners on projects addressing critical urban challenges such as predicting lead poisoning risk and police behavior, preventing abandoned homes and blight, and identifying struggling high school students. 

Despite the broad range of topics, many of these projects share common methods in data preparation, model development and pilot testing. To support the Civic Analytics Network, DSaPP will create methods, software code and infrastructure that make the sharing of data, creation of predictive or analytic models, and implementation easier for cities and counties. 

The team will first work with chief data officers to choose use cases – clearly defined research questions with available supporting data that address one of the project’s priority challenges. DSaPP data scientists will then create visualizations that help explore the data and analytic models that make predictions to inform operational decisions, such as where to most effectively deploy inspectors or interventions. Use cases found successful in one site will then be tested in other locations to assess model performance in new settings, where there may be differences in data or predictive factors.

The resulting software tools will be integrated into an analytics infrastructure that chief data officers across the country can share, reducing costs and granting access to smaller jurisdictions that would not be able to afford their own analytics personnel. The network will also hold regular meetings for chief data officers and data scientists to discuss shared challenges and accomplishments.

“CDOs are at the forefront of the technological revolution reshaping local governments across the country,” said Stephen Goldsmith, the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government at the Ash Center. “The Civic Analytics Network will allow us to build an important peer network of digital innovators to share creative solutions and strengthen our understanding of how cities and counties can better harness and apply data to address the 21st-century challenges of urban governance.”

Initial civic partners include Allegheny County, Pennsylvania; Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; King County, Washington; Los Angeles, California; New Orleans, Louisiana; New York, New York; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; San Diego, California; City and County of San Francisco, California; and Seattle, Washington.