What Toronto Can Learn from Other Cities Tapping Into the Power of Data
Torontoist has been acquired by Daily Hive Toronto - Your City. Now. Click here to learn more.




What Toronto Can Learn from Other Cities Tapping Into the Power of Data

Data-driven decision-making can help local governments develop programs that yield efficiencies.

Something innovative is happening behind the scenes of Chicago’s restaurants, but it’s not the latest food trend. It’s the city of Chicago’s current project: they can predict which restaurant you will get food poisoning at next. Think of it like the Minority Report of food sickness—but instead of relying on “precogs” to flag the next health code violators, city staff are tapping into the power of data. The project was launched to help optimize the work of Chicago’s 36 food inspectors who are tasked with scrutinizing more than 16,000 eating establishments. Using open data, Chicago’s department of innovation and technology developed an algorithm that predicts restaurants that are most likely to violate health codes. It has been so effective that Chicago’s inspectors have been able to address critical violations an average of seven days before they occur, and diners are much less likely to contract food-borne illnesses.

This is an example of city staff tapping into the power of data to deliver better public services. Data-driven governingusing data and evidence to improve how policy decisions are made and services are delivered—is increasing in popularity as cities are pressured to do more with tighter budgets. Data-driven decision-making can help local governments develop programs that yield efficiencies, and the savings can be funnelled back into building better communities.

In reality, this is easier said than done. The majority cities around the world aren’t close to realizing the power of data to help with its biggest problems, and Toronto is one of them. But how can we start? Let’s take a look at other cities that are leading by example.

Trust in Transparency

Data-driven cities prioritize transparency. They are proactive in making their data open: that is to say, it’s freely available to anyone and everyone. Cities that embrace robust open-data policies establish greater trust between government and citizens, which is the key to building a city that meets residents’ needs. After passing its open-data legislation, New York City noticed an increase in trust and collaboration between city staff, politicians, and citizens. A culture of openness has encouraged people to work together and approach city-building and public policy in creative ways. How does gang activity correlate to the availability of youth programs? Do noise problems affect school performance? With more open data, we can question age-old urban problems in ways that weren’t possible before.

Many municipal governments, including Toronto’s, claim to publish sufficient amounts of open data, but in reality, it isn’t enough. Data sets are often sparse, and they don’t represent a big enough picture to garner valuable insights. One reason for this is that cities often curate and clean data sets prior to publishing, which can be a huge “time sink.” According to Tom Schenk, Chicago’s chief data officer who spearheaded the city’s Open Data Portal initiative, “Trying to clean data before we publish it would not be as productive as adding data sets to the data portal. Adding a data set increases what the public can do with it.”

If You Build it, They Will Come

You may be wondering, who actually uses the data and what do they use it for? City staff use data for internal projects, like they did for Chicago’s food safety violation project. Externally, members of the public—such as researchers, technologists, and average citizens—love to get their hands on open data to conduct their own analyses, derive original insights, and build civic apps and tools. These motivated residents, often referred to collectively as civic tech communities, are growing in urban centres around the world, including Toronto. Governments are tapping into these networks to collaborate on creative projects that maximize impact and minimize government spending. ClearStreets, an open-data based app for residents to track snow removal, is an example of a tool that was created by members of Chi Hack Night, Chicago’s civic tech community, at no cost to government. City of Toronto staff built a similar tool, PlowTO, but using the City’s operating budget. Same result, but at different costs.

Governments that figure out how to collaborate with these communities can capitalize on opportunities to experiment with cutting-edge data analysis, like machine learning, even with limited budgets. North Carolina’s 311 call centre is piloting a Siri-type chatbot program to help improve response times and prioritize operator time to handle more challenging and complex concerns. Governments can seek support from civic tech communities to experiment with new technologies and reduce the risk of falling even more behind.

Toronto still has a long way to go before we can say we’re tapping into the power of our data to build a better city. Any lasting change needs to come from the top. Many governments, like the ones in Chicago and New York City, have appointed chief data officers or scientists who advocate for proactive transparency and collaboration or experimentation with community. We don’t have this kind of visionary and innovative leadership yet, but Toronto is on the right track. Toronto was recently selected as a Bloomberg Philanthropies innovative city recipient, so there’s clearly an appetite for change and innovation within the walls of City Hall. That’s great news for us because, as residents of Toronto, we are beneficiaries of the innovative work to come.