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Why Small Cities Need Big Data

Last week I attended the League of Oregon Cities’ annual conference in Bend, Oregon. Hundreds of elected officials and city staff from cities of every size attended. This was a new experience for me as I had in the past attended as a staff member for LOC. Now as an independent data strategist, I was a vendor and conference sponsor, so the way I prepped was different than in years past. Research and data are somewhat nebulous concepts for many practitioners, and the field is full of buzzwords like “Big Data”. I realized what mayors, city managers, and city councilors might most want to know is, “why would my city need data?”

It’s a good question because practically cities have operated for years (and sometimes centuries) without big data, research, and an endless supply of spreadsheets. True, cities can survive and thrive doing the same thing forever, but data and research can help cities do better than yesterday. This is even more true for small cities, often defined as those with a population under 10,000. With that, below are my five reasons cities (especially small cities) need big data.

1. Get to Know Your City and Citizens

Luckily, some of the best data is not far away or hard to obtain. The most important data for a city is often US government data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics or from the US Census Bureau. These two sources will give you plenty of data on your citizens. How old are they? Older than the rest of the state? How much of the population is school age? Do have a large population of first-generation Americans? What percentage are single parent families? What types of jobs are most common in the city?

True, you will know the answer to many of these questions, but this data can bolster or at least confirm your understanding of who lives and works in your town. It also can be used to discover future issues that can be addressed now. Several small cities in Oregon have no population under 40. Zero residents. This creates and obvious problem in a few decades when these cities could run the risk of disappearing entirely. While this is an extreme example, the city that can use data to discuss future issues now will be far more likely to prosper in the future.

2. Explore Ways to Save Money

Having data on city finances is the easiest of my point to explain. Cities must keep robust financial records, audits and plans for future spending. But this data doesn’t just have to be about how the city spend X amount on public works this year and will spend Y amount next year. Big data allows cities to compare themselves to other cities. My city spend X amount this year, but another city of the same size and region spent far less. Why? And how do I get to that point in my own city? Sometimes the answer is simple, other times there are extenuating circumstances. Comparison of cities is difficult because they all operate differently, because they all have unique histories and context. But some comparisons can do wonders to inform the financial process and save the city money.

Additionally, data allows for examining trends over time. Is a revenue source that the city relies upon going to be reliable into the future? Examine the trends from the last 20 years and see. This is yet another place where comparing the revenues to like cities can be useful. If a revenue source is declining in all cities in your region, it's time to act.

3. Compete with Large Cities

In Oregon, there are 48 cities that are over 10,000 residents. There are 12 cities over 50,000. So much of the state is smaller cities. As a result, cities are often operating with a staff of fewer than 10 people. This compared to Oregon’s largest city, Portland, with over 5,000 full-time employees. For this reason, smaller cities need to find ways to do more with less. To be able to solve and discover information quickly with little to no room for spare time and error. Data can provide this.

For instance, a city with a large legal team can answer questions all day such that even small questions get answered. If a city councilor asks, “how many cities in Oregon have wards?” it's easy to assign a staff member at this issue for several hours to get an answer. For a city that may have only a single lawyer for these questions, compiled data can be a huge timesaver that allows these questions to be addressed.

4. Track Your City Goals

Every city has goals about what they wish to accomplish in a year, ten years, etc. People may ask whether the goal is achievable. Others may wonder if the city is on track to meet it. Data can help here by showing exactly how close the city is to the goal. A data dashboard can even illustrate that progress in real time.

Now, not every goal is easy to illustrate with data. If there is a goal to reduce the city’s debt by 1 million dollars in the next 5 years, that’s a very easy goal to track. If the city has a goal to increase equity and diversity in the city staff over the next 3 years, that goal is multifaceted and up to interpretation. Yet even more qualitative goals such as this can be monitored and tracked with the use of data. In other articles I have written about the tyranny of measurement and how we should be leery of the incessant need to measure everything. But that post was more about the limits of data and performance measures as opposed to an argument against them overall. Tracking important goals is critical to maintaining focus and alignment. Cities should track their most desired goals. It creates transparency, accountability, and ensures that when the goal is met, the city can point to real success.

5. Make Better Decisions

All the previous points boil down to the most important theme of this article. Data helps cities make better decisions. In the same way courts rely on evidence to prove or disprove a case, cities need evidence to support the direction or available options.

Imagine there is a problem facing a small city in rural Central Oregon. The city will need context about the problem. This may involve information about the residents, finances, previous decisions, etc. Much of this can be provided by data. If the problem ties to operations and citywide goals, data can show where the issue first arose. Finally, data provides more options. Few complex decisions are either/or prospects; there is often “wiggle-room” on the fringes that can be of tremendous benefit over time. Data provides more solutions to problems as well as more clarity about the nuances of the problem and solution.


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