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About The Program
Cities have large data sets that can be used to help officials make decisions and inform policy, including crime statistics, utility data, and housing information. But with limited budgets and staff, many cities cannot afford to effectively make use of this data.
Through Urban Data Pioneers, the city works with citizens to help cities analyze their data and make better decisions. City leaders create teams of citizens and city staff and provide data sets, tools, and training. These teams analyze public problems using that data and present insights to decision-makers who can then create more effective solutions.
With low overhead costs, Urban Data Pioneers can easily be implemented by cities of any size. The program provides professional development opportunities to city staff members, including training in data analysis. Additionally, Urban Data Pioneers connects citizens to their city government, which can lead to long-term engagement and stronger cities.
Urban Data Pioneers was developed by the City of Tulsa, Oklahoma, because Mayor G.T. Bynum was committed to making Tulsa a data-driven city. The city did not have the budget or staff capacity to fully explore the data it had on hand, but there were a number of citizens motivated to help their community. The city created Urban Data Pioneers, inviting citizens to join the city as partners to examine some of the city’s most pressing challenges together. The program now includes more than 120 volunteer data scientists, technical professionals, city staff, and representatives from nonprofit organizations. These teams have delved into the data to help the city address more than a dozen public problems, from efficiently prioritizing street repairs to increasing per-capita income and reducing blight.
How It Works
For Urban Data Pioneers to be successful, the initiative must be led by the city. The program is most effective when it includes the following steps:
- Identify a set of problems or issues that the Urban Data Pioneers can examine. These should align with the priorities of the mayor or city chief executive.
- Design the program, including creating a timeline, identifying data sets, and securing meeting space.
- Recruit city staff and citizen volunteers. While the city will need to recruit subject matter experts and data analysis experts, not all volunteers need expertise to participate.
- Launch the program with a kickoff meeting to introduce the program parameters, select projects, and set expectations.
- Form teams of 10 or fewer participants, including at least one subject matter expert, one data analyst, and one team leader. These teams will be formed at the kickoff meeting based on shared interest in a problem.
- Work with teams to refine the problem they are examining and scope their projects
- Provide tools for data analysis and train participants to use them.
- Present findings from the Urban Data Pioneers teams to city leaders and other city staff.
- Measure the impact of the program.
- Celebrate successes and provide feedback to participants.
Step 1: Identify Problems
Based on the mayor’s priorities, city leaders identify a set of problems or issues for Urban Data Pioneers to explore using data, such as reducing violent crime, increasing the population, or reducing traffic collisions.
In order for the city to make use of the information provided by the Urban Data Pioneers teams, most of the problems examined should align with the mayor’s priorities or inform a problem that a department or agency leader has identified. The teams use these priorities to formulate questions that can be examined using available data. For example: What locations have a higher rate of vehicle crashes and what are the most common causes? Where are the areas of the city that have vacant properties?
Giving the teams some flexibility in selecting their projects ensures that they remain engaged with the problems they are examining and gives them freedom to explore new avenues of inquiry. Some teams may choose to examine a problem that falls outside the mayor’s priorities. While this may mean the information is not utilized immediately, it allows for unexpected findings that may be useful for city staff in their day-to-day work.
City staff may want to reach out to citizens to identify project ideas in advance. In this case, the city may wish to create a survey which can be sent to city staff and made available on social media to solicit ideas from citizens, or invite citizens to submit ideas via email, which can be listed in promotion materials.
Step 2: Develop and Design the Program and Materials
Before launching the program, city leaders prepare materials and determine milestones for the Urban Data Pioneers. These include:
Charter: Each Urban Data Pioneers team fills out a charter — a short, simple form that includes basic information about the team and their project. The form helps the teams clarify the question they are examining and identify team members. The charter includes the guiding question or hypothesis, background information about the topic, and goals. It also lists information about the team. An example of a charter from Tulsa that could be adapted for your city can be found here.
Prepare Data: City leaders identify data sets that are already available for teams to use. This does not need to be a comprehensive list. Having in mind a number of data sets that will likely be used — such as crime, housing, and utility statistics — will make the teams more effective and efficient. Teams may also wish to request additional data from city departments and other agencies.
The mayor and department heads are essential to the success of Urban Data Pioneers. Their open commitment to the program will make city agencies more willing to share data with the teams.
Data Sharing Agreement: Safely sharing information is essential to the success of the program. In many cities, a large amount of data is publicly available. Some data sets may contain information, such as street addresses, that may not be distributed publicly. Before the program begins, city leaders may wish to develop a data sharing agreement for participants to sign that will allow teams to use non-public data. Tulsa’s agreement can be found here.
Timeframe and Milestones: City leaders determine the timeframe for the teams to explore their questions and develop a presentation. Ten weeks is generally sufficient time for examining a problem. If team members need significant training or more time to gather additional data, the city may want to extend this period by two or three weeks.
In general, because teams are formed by volunteers who have an interest in the problem, they function well with minimal oversight. Teams determine when and how often they will meet and how they will communicate. Providing a few milestones can be helpful, however. These might include a date by which teams should have their data results prepared and a date by which to have a draft of the presentation completed.
Step 3: Recruit Volunteers
City leaders recruit volunteers from both outside and inside city hall. A press release is an effective way to begin recruitment, along with promoting the program on social media. The press release may mention some issues Urban Data Pioneers will explore, though it should make clear that the city is open to ideas from citizens. Tulsa’s press release can be found here.
Volunteers should also be recruited from city departments. Multiple emails may be required to make staff aware of the opportunity. Again, commitment from city leadership is essential. City staff are more likely to volunteer their time with Urban Data Pioneers and managers are more likely to give them time to participate if the initiative is a priority of the mayor.
No expertise in data analysis is required to participate. However, each team will need a subject matter expert and data visualization or analysis expert to help examine the problem.
The data analysis expert will need knowledge of data analysis techniques such as intermediate Excel, data visualization, basic coding in R or Python, and geographic information systems (GIS). Some city staff will have these skills, such as crime analysts, utility analysts, or staff in accounting or finance. Subject matter experts will help the teams identify data sets and refine the questions they are exploring. For example, a team exploring blighted neighborhoods should include a member from the code enforcement department or a nonprofit that works in housing, and a team looking at health issues should include a member who works for the health department or a hospital.
Partner organizations and other agencies can assist with recruitment. These include nonprofit organizations, community groups, businesses, and universities. City leaders may wish to reach out to partners with whom they have existing relationships, organizations that work on specific priority issues, and those that work in the area of data analysis.
Advertising materials and social media posts can also be used to invite partner organizations to participate. You may want to develop materials to help partners recruit on your behalf, such as flyers and graphics to be shared on social media.
Step 4: Launch the Program
City leaders launch the program with a kickoff meeting. All volunteers and city staff who are interested in participating should attend. Attendance by a high-level leader, particularly the mayor, demonstrates the city’s commitment to the program and appreciation for the work of the pioneers. Be sure to heavily publicize the event.
Begin by explaining the program, including its purpose and parameters. This is also a good time to talk about milestones and meeting space. A sample kickoff meeting agenda from Tulsa can be found here.
It is important to emphasize that the primary goal of the Urban Data Pioneers teams is not to identify solutions but rather to better understand the problem and present that information to city staff. This does not mean, however, that the teams cannot propose solutions and recommend next steps.
The Urban Data Pioneers teams will also be formed during this meeting.
Step 5: Form Teams
Urban Data Pioneers teams include 10 or fewer city staff and community members interested in a particular problem or issue. Most teams can be formed at the kickoff event. City leaders can also connect individuals after the meeting as necessary. The teams are formed around shared interest in a public problem, such as blight or traffic accidents.
While most of the problems put forward should reflect the priorities of city leadership, some may be submitted by citizens and city staff. Ideally, these will be submitted before the kickoff meeting so that the city can review them and ensure that they are practical.
The easiest way to form teams is to post the public problems for teams to explore on flip chart paper around the room. Participants can simply gather around the problem that interests them and form a team. City leaders may wish to develop other methods for forming the teams, depending on the number and interests of volunteers, the mayor’s preferences, and other factors.
Team Makeup: The volunteer teams will be made up of both city staff and community members, with 10 or fewer members. With the exception of the subject matter experts, team members do not need to have prior knowledge of the problem they are exploring.
If teams do not initially include a subject matter and data analysis expert, then city staff can help them identify those experts. Partner organizations, such as nonprofit organizations, businesses, and universities can also help the city recruit volunteer experts.
Each team also identifies a team leader. This person coordinates team meetings and facilitates communication. The teams determine their own meeting schedule and meeting location. In Tulsa, many teams met early in the morning or during lunch hour, while others communicated primarily via Slack and email.
The teams fill out the charter at the kickoff meeting.
Step 6: Refine the Scope of the Projects
Teams may need assistance determining an appropriate scope for the question they are examining. City leaders should work with team members to ensure that they have refined their query so that it will yield helpful information, and help teams identify data sets and variables that will be useful as they explore the problem. The city may wish to consult with data experts at local nonprofit organizations and businesses familiar with Census and city data to help teams identify relevant variables.
Projects should be focused and achievable within 10 weeks. Avoid projects whose scope involves many data sets due to the complexity of analyzing multiple data sets. Make sure there is a clear definition of success in the project scope. For example: We want to map where blight and violent crime overlap with a heat map.
Step 7: Provide Your Teams with Tools and Training
Tools: City leaders identify tools that Urban Data Pioneers can use. There are a number of low-cost tools. These include:
- Microsoft Excel: Most individuals will have access to Excel, which is a powerful analytics tool.
- Tableau: Tableau is an easy-to-use data visualization tool that many organizations use. There is a public version available for free, but it has some significant limitations. A license costs less than $1,000.
- Programming Languages: Python and R are programming languages that can be used to analyze data. They require training, but are otherwise free to use.
Training: City staff provides training to team members in using data analysis software and programming languages.
Although at least one team member should already know how to use the data analysis tools, giving other members basic training will increase the team’s effectiveness and provide valuable professional development to both city staff and community members. This will also aid the sustainability and growth of Urban Data Pioneers, increasing the number of trained community members and city staff who can participate on teams.
The city may recruit expert volunteers or city staff with data analysis expertise to offer training or pay external trainers if the city has sufficient funds. Partner organizations, such as universities and businesses with data scientists on staff, may also be available to provide training for free or at a discount.
Step 8: Present the Data
At the end of the allotted time period, city leaders organize a showcase at which teams present their findings. All senior staff should attend these meetings if possible, as should any staff who are interested. The more leaders in attendance, the more likely the new information discovered will be used to inform decision-making.
Presentations are short slide presentations that last less than 10 minutes. Each presentation explains both the process the team used to examine the data and its findings. The presentations may also include suggested next steps. A short Q&A follows to allow attendees to ask questions of the presenting team.
City leaders may wish to make these presentations publicly available. Examples of presentations from Tulsa can be found here.
Step 9: Measure Impact
City leaders determine metrics to track throughout the program. How will city staff track whether policies change or new programs are initiated because of new information that is unearthed? A survey of city staff may be a helpful way to do this. It may be administered by email or while staff are gathered for the presentations. The city may also wish to send a survey to participants to assess whether they had learned new skills during the process.
Additional metrics to track could include the number of participants in the program, the number of problems examined, and the number of city staff exposed to the data that is unearthed.
Step 10: Celebrate Success
City leaders share the outcomes of the Urban Data Pioneers work with participants. If their presentations are being used to inform policy or have resulted in tools that the city is using, be sure to tell team members and share with constituents. The knowledge that their work is being used creates goodwill with the participants and increases the likelihood that they continue to participate in Urban Data Pioneers and other programs. Publicizing outcomes also demonstrates that the city is engaging residents to address public challenges.
Cities may find other ways to celebrate the work of participants. These might include a newsletter, a celebratory gathering, or a note from the mayor acknowledging their work.