Cities’ Use of Data and Intelligence: Key Takeaways

IPPO Cities convened a policy roundtable to explore insights from the pandemic for city policymakers on the use of intelligence and data.  The event asked how city policymakers took decisions during the pandemic, what worked and why, and what lessons could be applied to future crises and everyday decision-making.

Here are some key takeaways from the discussion.

Dashboards and other visualisations can be transformative for city leaders, advocates, and citizens

While dashboards were one of the defining features of communication with the public during the pandemic, they also were integral for internal decision-making by city leaders and policymakers.  New York City’s dashboard allowed both citizens and officials to measure and track infections, hospitalisations, and death rates.  It also allowed decision-makers to easily flag up situations where more resources needed to be deployed, and also identify future trends as they were emerging.

The effectiveness of city dashboards often depended on a partnership-based approach to the gathering of data.  This allowed information from the public, private, and voluntary sectors to be combined to tell a single story about what was happening in a locality, which in turn allowed different decision-makers to work from a common set of data.

A singular, regular dashboard also helped combat potential information overload and data fatigue. With officials often subject to a barrage of reporting from various different contexts, a single, regular dashboard helped prioritise what was important, and encouraged good decision-making.  Nevertheless, the provision of contextualising information was also important.  Providing city leaders with case studies and examples of things which had gone well served to promote a climate of holistic leadership, avoiding being overly focused only on the next, short-term challenge.

Visualising data during Covid also allowed it to be used as an advocacy tool as well as a messaging one. Visualisations and map layering helped city administrators and advocates alike demonstrate graphically how Covid rates were related to other structural issues, from anxiety and depression to racial and economic disparities.  For example, in one visualisation, New York showed how neighbourhoods with a greater population of people of colour generally suffered higher rates of Covid.

Covid highlighted the need to remove barriers to data sharing

Just as 19th-century public health crises such as yellow fever led to a revolution in sanitation, so the way data was mobilised in the pandemic has the potential to lead to a revolution in the way in which data is used to run our cities.  Covid also demonstrated that regulatory reform may be required to ensure data-sharing protocols are fit for purpose in our data-led world.

Data sharing between organisations during Covid was crucial to quickly building a common understanding of what was happening on the ground. Involving data from a variety of sources meant getting data-sharing agreements in place at speed, including overcoming the organisational and cultural challenges to make these happen.  In this context just as in others, the urgency of the pandemic situation demonstrated the possibility that tricky issues that may have previously taken weeks or months to resolve previously could, with the right will, in fact be resolved in hours or days.

However, while the existence of prior legal agreements proved problematic to using some real-time data during the pandemic, the general trend from it has been towards data-sharing going forward.  To seize this momentum, securing the requisite support from key players to erect future data-sharing infrastructure necessarily requires demonstrating the value which data-sharing added during the pandemic response.

Citizens and their data have a role to play

The pandemic period also saw the use of data collected by citizens themselves becoming more prevalent.  In Germany, cities developed their own spatial platforms which allowed individuals to share their data collaboratively, seeing individuals doing things like installing cameras and sensors in their own homes to share information such as traffic data. Such developments increased the sense that data could be of benefit to society as a whole, and helping to move beyond debates about data privacy.

The conducting of more highly localised analysis by neighbourhood was also important for the future through empowering citizens to use relevant data in a way that matters to them at the local level.  Additionally, the potential of the proliferation of data from smartphones for good urban form has also not yet been fully addressed.  We should be optimistic about the possibility to use such data to build sustainability and liveability into cities in the future.

Interoperability and scalability of data are key for the future

While the pandemic led to much improved use of data, issues still exist around data standardization.  In the future, the interoperability and scalability of a data ecosystem will be key to harnessing the power of data to meet the coming urban challenges.

Automating data processes, breaking down silos, and connecting information in order to retrieve knowledge under open data are areas of potential positive impact for public policy.  Linked open data is also one way which can help in planning for the future city, including the use of digital urban twins.  Linked open data has the potential to be the next step beyond the two-dimensional data dashboard familiar from the pandemic.

View challenges holistically through a place-based approach

A place-based approach to urban policy – whether in everyday work or in a crisis – leads to more effective governance than viewing problems through the lens of service or organisational silos. A holistic analysis can help recognise the drivers of what is occurring on the ground, together with the often-connected nature of these challenges, as occurred with linking of infection levels to social determinants of poor health.

Part of this place-based approach can also value information about lived experience, with qualitative insight from the community and voluntary sector on the ground helping city leaders contextualise the situation.  This can also assist with understanding the city in a block-by-block manner.  During the pandemic, a hyper-local data lens was invaluable to cities like New York for being able to tailor the on-the-ground approach around things like vaccination for vulnerable communities or the location of distribution points in an effective manner.

…And good data needs people too

The Covid response also showed us that success is as much about the behaviour of people as it is about data and intelligence. While the best information still requires people to unlock its utility, an agile response requires not waiting for who might be the most suitable person for each task. In Leeds, a key learning was to invest in organisational development and culture to move allow people the confidence and soft skills to use data to serve across different policy areas.

Participants at the roundtable Maryanne Schretzman, Executive Director of the Center for Innovation through Data Intelligence, City of New York, Mike Eakins, Intelligence and Policy Manager at Leeds City Council, Dr. Aurel von Richthofen of Arup Germany and ETH-Singapore Centre, and Mar Santamaria, Co-Founder of 300.000 km/s, Barcelona.