WASHINGTON - Bloomberg Philanthropies on Wednesday announced the first eight cities it has selected to participate in a new program to improve life in America's cities.
Chattanooga, Tennessee; Louisville, Kentucky; Kansas City, Missouri; Mesa, Arizona; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Jackson, Mississippi; Seattle and New Orleans will be the first to benefit from the What Works Cities Initiative. The project intends to spend $42 million over three years to help U.S. cities address issues like economic development, public health, crime and transportation.
Bloomberg Philanthropies handles all the charitable giving of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I).
Whats Works Cities officially launched in April, and received applications from cities in 40 states during the first six weeks. A total of 100 cities will be admitted on a rolling basis through 2017.
A major aim of the project is to help cities better use the data they already collect and to share it more effectively with the public.
"The basic idea is that cities are collecting an incredible amount of data, and traditionally, governments have kept that data behind closed doors," said Jim Anderson, head of government innovation programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies. "But over the last decade, there's been a movement to get that data out into people's hands and let citizens better understand what's happening in their cities."
As an example, Anderson pointed to Louisville, which launched a program to see where citizens had the most difficulty breathing by attaching GPS trackers to asthma inhalers. Having collected this data, he said, Louisville can now better map and address sources of air pollution.
Bloomberg Philanthropies has partnered with subject matter experts like the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, a leading organization promoting government transparency and accountability, and the Johns Hopkins Center for Government Excellence, which seeks to help governments improve their use of data.
"These first eight cities are really diverse in their experiences, yet the common thread is that they have leadership that's raring to get this work started," said Beth Blauer, CGE's executive director. "There's such enthusiasm for improving people's lives with data."
Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber (D) said his city plans to use the information it has started collecting to improve everything from property values to the annual city budget.
"My background is education, and we use data a lot in schools, so I wanted to bring this into the mayor's office when I was elected," Yarber told HuffPost. "The days of saying 'But this is how we've always done it' are over. Starting now, we're going to explain why we do things and how."
A trove of new data is also helping Jackson handle a crisis of blighted properties that are too run-down and unsafe for habitation, and often get abandoned by their owners. "The dilapidated housing piece is huge, and we spend a lot of energy trying to boost property values and clean up properties," Yarber said. "But sometimes it can feel like we're spinning our wheels."
"So how do we make sure the work we're doing is sustainable and really lasting?" he continued. "The only way is by measuring and collecting all kinds of data."
For Bloomberg and its partner groups, the data component of the What Works Cities project is aimed in large part at developing model programs, so that a city doesn't have to reinvent the wheel each time it faces a problem like a water shortage or a spike in violent crime.
"There's a big appetite for understanding what's working in other places," said Anderson. "The cities we're selecting for this program don't suffer from the old 'if it wasn't invented here ...' syndrome."
This kind of cross-pollination, both within cities and between them, is a major long-term goal of What Works Cities.
Blauer described the way New Orleans is already using its acclaimed BlightStats program, which tracks the status of blighted properties, as a model for other projects.
"They're borrowing the skills from BlightStats, and they're trying to apply it to their violence reduction program," she explained. "Now the question is, how do we invest in those building blocks so you can take any problem and put it through a system and get results?"
For a place like Jackson, which struggles with high poverty rates and a steadily declining population, the prospect of being held up as a model of data-driven innovation is inspiring.
"I'd love for people to be able to look at Jackson and see a model of how to create an infrastructure master plan and a new innovative economy," Yarber said. "We want to put the goals in front of people, so they can watch what's happening to the city in real time."