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The Fault in Government Data

Most recently, I was able to survey cities and analyze their emergency water preparedness infrastructure. This is a way for cities to prepare for natural or man-made disasters by having backup water sources for their residents. This is especially important for drinking water, but also water needs regarding sanitation. As anyone who has ever read or experienced the aftermath of flooding or a hurricane can tell you; water and sanitation are critical.

The results of the survey showed that many cities are very well situated to handle the effects of such an emergency. This is true regardless of the region or the size of the city. Large cities as well as small ones had preparations made, but these measures were conditional on their geography. That is, cities with major water resources were prepared and others with less water resources would be forced into a scramble in the event of disaster.

The way that many cities get around this issue is to partner with other governments in what is known as a mutual aid agreement. This means that cities (acting as the provider, receiver or often both) will share emergency water assets and infrastructure if the residents of the city need emergency water. But what was discovered was the lack of a unified network of agreements.

Most often, these agreements would be with neighboring cities, adjacent special districts (water districts being the most obvious) or with state agencies with special assets in that area. This discovery was made using network analysis to show the disconnected nature of the agreements. The network was less a spiderweb and more bit of string cast around.

Emergency Water Infrastructure Network. Notice very few connections between organizations and governments.

Please note that this is not a large set of actors. The total number of connected governments (called nodes in the language of networks) is only 32. This low number is partially due to the small number of respondent cities that had mutual aid agreements. It shows a lack of communication and partnership in governments of all sizes that impedes rapid response to emergencies as well as daily operations.

What the heck does this have to do with data and research?... Everything!

The ability for governments, and really any organizations, to make effective decisions is with facts and evidence. Today, quality evidence is often captured in data. This means that data becomes the backbone of much of the strategic decisions made and the policies enacted. And that is how we would expect it to be. While we should always have a place for evidence as seen in not-so-easily quantified information such as emotions and aesthetics; logic and facts should be the primary source of information for rational decisions. This puts data front and center in many important discussions.

Whether we are talking about a small city or a large corporation, collecting the right data is key. This often cannot be done without a network of cooperation that creates a flow of data from one node to another. Back to the city reference, mutual aid agreements are useful locally, but not globally. Suppose a city with not emergency water assets has no nearby neighbors with such assets either. However, on the other side of a mountain range and 2 hours down the highway, another city has plenty of emergency water resources that can be shared. If there is no network of data and information, nothing gets shared and no one is helped.

This is the fault in government data.

The problem seen now is that cities only talk locally, counties talk locally, states talk locally, and each of these levels of government only talk to each other when its expedient, financially driven, or written into law. Establishing an infrastructure for data sharing before it is needed in an emergency would solve much of this problem and is long overdue.


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