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Drowning in Data

September 15, 2016 11:00 AM
by Rick Cole

Drowning in Data

We are drowning in data.  People took more than a billion photos last year, posting 250 million of them a day to Facebook.  We post 500 million Tweets per day.  This year Internet traffic will exceed one zettabyte.  That’s 1021bytes = 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes.  It’s expected to double by 2019.

Cities are also drowning in data.  Demographic data.  Geographic data.  Sensor data.  Traffic data.  Crime data.  The “open data” movement has unleashed torrents of terabytes of publicly accessible information posted by cities on their open data portals.  More is on the way as cities compete for ranking on the US City Open Data Census (Santa Monica ranked as high as third nationally in 2015.  We’ve fallen to 15th, but remain the top performer by population size.)

What no one has figured out is what to do with all this data.  Yes, it helps corporate advertisers pinpoint their sales pitches to us.  Yes, it apparently is increasingly sorting us into political echo chambers where we hear what we want to hear from our friends who agree with us on social media.  Yes, it powers mobile apps like Waze that help us navigate traffic (with the unintended consequence of flooding quiet residential streets with cut-through commuter traffic.) 

But it isn’t yet creating the “smart cities” where data is routinely harnessed to “data-driven decision-making” by humans and bots.  In this projected nirvana hovering somewhere out there in The Cloud, self-driven cars using micro amounts of energy zip people to their destinations, drones keep us supplied with goods before we even realize we need them and predictive analytics drive pinpoint interventions that prevent everything from suicides to homelessness to water leaks.

More realistically, we still struggle to keep comprehensive track of citizen complaints (and their resolution); provide elected officials with real time statistical policy analyses; or figure out how often our Police, Fire, Library, Parks and Human Services professionals encounter the same homeless person.

That’s why we’ve created a new job in Santa Monica: Chief Data Officer.  No single person can supply the wizardry to make sense of the growing gap between data availability and data usability.   But cities are recognizing the value of having a champion for coherently curating data – and helping public servants (and the public) make sense of it. 

There are only a handful of Chief Data Officers in local government in the country -- even as they are becoming standard in the private sector.  Santa Monica is following the pioneering example of larger cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.  We are seeking someone to “harness the power of data to improve our collective wellbeing.”

Take Fire data, for example.  Last year, we responded to 15,464 emergency calls.  The vast majority were medical.  Only 47 were for actual fires in buildings (we classify these “structure fires.”)  A surprising 2704 were homeless distress calls. 

Those are the top line numbers.  The real value lies deeper.  What kinds of calls were most prevalent? Where did they came from?  How successful were the outcomes?  Crunching data can help us, for example, to restructure our staffing to respond to predictable peaks in demand for services and improve emergency response times (we are currently running a pilot for that now.) It’s also possible to identify frequent patients who it would be more cost-effective to serve with a non-emergency nurse practitioner than with a fire engine and paramedics going red lights and sirens (as Los Angeles is currently piloting.)   

These opportunities exist across everything we do.  By guiding and training the public workforce, a CDO can help Santa Monica become a more “data-driven” organization – and unlock the potential of data to help us make better decisions, save money and achieve better outcomes.

Santa Monica is often called the epicenter of Silicon Beach.  That’s fine for bragging rights and it certainly augments our economic base.  But the greatest potential benefit to residents is to better utilize data to improve our quality of life by making government far more effective in the 21st Century.  Of course, no one person can achieve that – any more than a Police Chief can fight crime alone.  Still, we have long recognized the value of leadership – and the right leader is what we are looking for now in a Chief Data Officer.

Maybe that’s you . . . if so, apply by the September 29th deadline


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