Memphis picked for Bloomberg's What Works Cities Initiative in a 'partnership to expertise'

Analytics isn’t just for sports franchises anymore. Counting beans and crunching numbers, it turns out, can address shortcomings in communities, too.

Memphis is the latest city to join the What Works Cities initiative. Started in 2015 by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the program isn’t one that throws money at a problem - it takes a hard look at the numbers.

Some of the issues being tackled by the organization are homelessness, public safety, and economic development. Improving open data resources and housing affordability have also been addressed.

So far, 85 cities with 27 million residents scattered across 37 states have joined. Other cities joining the fold this year are Arlington, Tex; Charleston, S.C.; Fort Collins, Colo.; and Sioux Falls, SD. Closer to home, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville are already taking part.

"Mayor Strickland has charged us with being the most transparent administration in the history of Memphis," said Kyle Veazey, City of Memphis deputy director of communications.

"In addition to everything else we’re doing to advance that, What Works Cities will help us develop a more comprehensive open data policy with the goal of making the city's data more usable and accessible to our citizens.”

In the effort toward transparency, the Strickland administration is set to work with the Sunlight Foundation through their new partnership with WWC. The nonprofit, good-government organization seeks openness from the lowest local offices up to the executive branch. It also comes from the Bloomberg Philanthropic wheelhouse.

Memphis will also coordinate with Results for America. Another nonprofit, it was selected by Bloomberg’s philanthropy to develop policies derived from data. The data will be based on community feedback. With on the ground, first person information the hope is the city’s data will become more applicable and accessible. Another hope is that it will improve the delivery of services to Memphians.

“This partnership allows us to access donated expertise from the WWC partner organizations – such as the Sunlight Foundation and Results for America. It also allows us to tap into the insight of other WWC member cities who have already crossed tackled this challenge,” said Veazey.

By engaging these other municipalities, they can draw from their data. A look at the numbers could reveal the program’s worth. They can also draw on any expertise gleaned during their tenure. This could lead to improved outcomes from private contractors, for instance. Or, create opportunities for innovation. Publishing data has also aided in providing equitable service.

“Many cities who want to use data don't have the capacity to do so in terms of personnel, resources and expertise. What Works Cities was created by Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2015 to address this data gap by connecting mid-sized cities with experts in open data, performance management, results-based contracting and other skills,” said Sharman Stein, director of communications, What Works Cities.

Although new to the WWC initiative, Memphis has used data to improve services. For the last 18 months, the city analyzed data to improve 911 response times. It took a dispatcher an average of 60 seconds to pick up the phone when Strickland came into office in January of 2016.

Now, the response time is 11 seconds.

Nationally, the standard for answering 95 percent of calls is 20 seconds or less. Memphis now falls within the eightieth percentile.

“Decision-making based on data and evidence is at the very core of what we do in our administration,” Mayor Strickland said.

“What Works Cities’ selection of Memphis will help us grow stronger in our use of data – and in how we’re transparent with the public.”

Before those decisions are made, there will be public engagement in some form or another. Through the discovery process, what kind of data is needed and how the public wants it delivered will be fleshed out. It could be a website, or maybe a downloadable spreadsheet.  

WWC was launched to provide technical expertise to 100 cities. The goal is to help them devise “twenty-first century governance strategies.” This will be done on a rolling basis through 2018.

“Memphis (and all cities) apply to participate in this initiative. Cities that are selected to be a What Works city have demonstrated that their mayor and leadership are committed to doing this work, and have the capacity to address their goals through this partnership,” said Stein.

So, in the future, don’t be surprised if you see more outreach from the City of Memphis. It could be through an online survey, social media, or other forms of engagement. It’s just an effort by the civic leaders to improve services; to provide more bang for your tax dollar buck through modern day analytical practices.

“Our selection as a What Works city, in my mind, shows that we’re gaining positive attention nationally for our commitment to governing using data and being transparent with our citizens,” said Veazey.

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