Bloomberg's Program To Build Better Cities Just Got Bigger

More cities will receive grants to solve pressing local problems.

When he was mayor of New York, Mike Bloomberg used to quote statistician W.E. Deming’s famous saying: “In God we trust. Everyone else, bring data.” 

Now that the billionaire has returned to the private sector, his charitable organization is putting tens of millions of dollars behind getting other mayors to govern under the same principle. The idea is to make cities all around the United States better places to live.

On Thursday, New York-based Bloomberg Philanthropies announced that it added 13 more cities to its What Works Cities initiative, a program launched in April 2015 that provides grants to technical experts to help urban governments solve local problems. This brings the total number of cities involved in the project up to 21. What Works Cities plans to expand to as many as 100 cities by 2017, admitting new ones on a rolling basis.

Here are the most recent cities to join: 

  • Anchorage, Alaska
  • Bellevue, Washington
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Denton, Texas
  • Denver, Colorado
  • Independence, Missouri
  • Las Vegas, Nevada
  • Lexington, Kentucky
  • Saint Paul, Minnesota
  • San Francisco, California
  • San Jose, California
  • Tacoma, Washington
  • Waco, Texas

This initiative will invest a total of $42 million over the next two years to support expert consulting and technical assistance for mid-sized cites to adopt the data-driven governing techniques that distinguished Bloomberg's administration in New York City. While Bloomberg was in office, New York City exemplified data-driven local government. He established a new Office of Urban Analytics, which saved lives and taxpayer dollars in the Big Apple.  

Using data to make better decisions isn't new, but the increasingly digital nature of  government has created vast amounts of it -- and cities now have a huge opportunity to make sense of it. By collecting, structuring and analyzing the vast amounts of data previously trapped in paper records, officials can identify more quickly than ever before which policies are working and which aren't.

That's a big opportunity for mayors and their constituents, and that's why Bloomberg Philanthropies is putting so much money behind making real the return on investing in data-driven government.

"Mayors are hungry to use data to improve performance, to engage citizens, to better understand what's happening on the street," Jim Anderson, head of government innovation programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies, told The Huffington Post.

"There is a wealth of administrative and performance data that can be unlocked and harnessed to help mayors do all of those things," he added. "They need the tools, some technical assistance, some coaching, and to develop the culture within their governments to learn those tools and put them into practice. We're pushing against an open door. What mayors really need are resources, best practices and a chance to learn from one another, and then the sky is the limit."

When city hall, policy experts and technologists collaborate, they can mine data to find trends and to figure out where to target regulators, police the streets, improve traffic patterns, detect drug trafficking and prevent contractors from defrauding the city, among many other potential improvements. 

A map plotting the location of all 21 grantees in the Whats Working Cities initiative. Gold indicates the 13 newly announced
A map plotting the location of all 21 grantees in the Whats Working Cities initiative. Gold indicates the 13 newly announced cities; gray marks the original eight.

While making poor decisions based upon bad data will always be a risk, there's also potential for massive public good. Approaches like "predictive policing" can simultaneously both raise civil liberties concerns and lower crime.

As an increasing number of governors and mayors have discovered over the past decade, however, adopting data-driven government isn't just about about technology. 

"We are seeing and hearing that cities get that this isn't about high-tech platforms and big IT buys. It's about people and culture," said Anderson. "There's a real recognition that this is a moment to shift culture within government for the better. Using data and evidence drives what works and facilitates accountability and transparency. It's also serving as a catalyst in government for a new way of working."

While What Works Cities is still a relative newcomer to the world of civic innovation, it's already had an impact through its partners. Those include the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University, the Behavioral Insights Team from the United Kingdom, Results for America, a nonprofit focused on evidence-based decision-making, the Government Performance Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Sunlight Foundation, a D.C.-based nonpartisan nonprofit focused on technology-fueled government transparency.

"What's most exciting and novel about this work is that it takes the form of coaching and capacity-building, so these cities will be able to replicate what we have taught them to other areas of practice," Andrew Nicklin, director of open data at the Center for Government Excellence, told HuffPost.

Mayors are hungry to use data to improve performance, to engage citizens, to better understand what's happening on the street. Jim Anderson, Bloomberg Philanthropies

One success story from the first round of What Works Cities grantees is Chattanooga, Tennessee. Using a combination of data about crime rates and abandoned buildings to establish where "hot zones" are in the city, officials then positioned police officers in those areas to reduce crime.

"An empty building is a dangerous building," Andy Berke, the mayor of Chattanooga, told HuffPost. "Illegal activity happens there, people get hurt there, fires happen there, residents know that those buildings devalue the properties in their neighborhoods."

Two building inspectors are now working in the police department to focus on the locations associated with the biggest problems. That's a direct parallel to how New York used data analytics to prevent fires, scoring the buildings that present the greatest fire risk, and it's the kind of approach that everyone involved in What Works would like to see scaled nationally. 

"People expect their tax dollars to go farther and for the services that we perform to be delivered better and more efficiently than in the past," Berke told HuffPost. "Part of open data and performance management is to ensure that we meet those expectations. For us, this is all about providing a better end product that makes Chattanoogans' lives better."

What distinguishes What Works Cities from other efforts to share best practices around data-driven governance is its focus on medium-sized cities, as opposed to metropolises like Chicago or Los Angeles, both of which have become leaders in opening government data

"The What Works Cities initiative is a unique opportunity to reach mid-sized American cities who are interested in making the commitment to open data, but might not have otherwise known where to start," Sunlight Foundation President Chris Gates told HuffPost. 

What's most exciting and novel about this work is that it takes the form of coaching and capacity-building, so these cities will be able to replicate what we have taught them to other areas of practice. Andrew Nicklin, Center for Government Excellence

Beth Blauer, executive director of the Center for Government Excellence, explained to HuffPost why the size of the cities selected is significant.

"Out of necessity, they don't have the internal capacity to solve most pressing problems," she said. "They need stakeholders to help them improve the lives of people living there. It's definitely evident in the work: There's less entrenched bureaucracy and more willingness to release information.

Blauer highlighted Jackson, Mississippi, another What Works city, as a great example. Like Chattanooga, Jackson has a big challenge with abandoned buildings in residential and commercial areas, along with its downtown.

After the city received a grant through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to address the issues, Jackson improved the performance of its public works agency, moving from five buildings demolished or rebuilt annually to 20 buildings a year.

 That's good news for Jackson, and it could be good news for a city near you.

"We hope to learn a lot from those experiments and then share those lessons with other cities," said Anderson. "It's about creating a network of peer-practitioners who are working on these issues around the country, elevating the successes and sharing them with others. This is why this is the right program at the right time."

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story said What Works Cities offers grants to urban governments. In fact, the grants go to technical experts, who use the money to work with cities.