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Sunday, 04 February 2018 14:15

Grand Rapids to leverage open data for better policy making

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GRAND RAPIDS –– The city of Grand Rapids over the next year will join the growing ranks of cities around the world seeking to enhance their data management practices. 

By doing that, the city hopes to inform policy, bolster quality of life and ultimately, leverage more private-sector partnerships and investments. 

City officials announced last month that Grand Rapids had become the first Michigan city to be accepted into the year-long What Works Cities (WWC) initiative, a 2015 program founded by Bloomberg Philanthropies that was launched by billionaire businessman and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The initiative’s aim is to help midsize cities of up to 1 million people identify best practices for data analysis and how data can be used better in the municipal policy making process. 

As part of the WWC program, Grand Rapids officials will work closely with various educational partners with expertise in data management, talk with officials in other cities in the program, explore solutions to similar problems and further their work to create a portal for open data. 

Moreover, the work could help to streamline various municipal departments that often don’t talk to one another on any given day, according to officials. 

“We have good data that could go a long ways to solving several problems,” said Zachary Thiel, one of the city’s project managers for the What Works Cities program. “It’s just that departments often exist in silos, so they might not necessarily know in one department what another department has to offer that could help them solve their problems.”

Thiel said the city will start off by taking an inventory of what data sets individual departments have and then work to present and interpret that data in a way that can help create policy for issues such as affordable housing, transportation trends and monitoring of air quality. 

In many ways, the work the city seeks to do with open data is similar to what Madison, Wis. did as part of the WWC program. 

Madison’s open data portal allows residents to view and interpret data around issues like budgets, facilities and city projects. 

Additionally, the portal serves people in the private sector, “who can access raw data to build apps for businesses, educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, and citizens,” according to a statement from Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), the Redlands, Calif. company that helped design Madison’s current portal. 

INTEREST FROM THE OUTSIDE

Early in the program, Grand Rapids officials are largely focused internally, but private sector stakeholders already see significant opportunities for more partnerships and testing of technologies. 

“We really believe that some of the most compelling opportunities, problems and even most profitable (opportunities) lie in solving some of these core community issues around housing, mobility, energy, environment,” said Mike Morin, co-director at Start Garden, the entrepreneurial service organization that administers the city’s SmartZone financing mechanism. “Those are inherently going to require public-private intersection and access to data sources that currently are difficult to achieve. I don’t think (the acceptance into the What Works Cities program) is a small thing. I think this is a huge thing.”

Morin also works closely with two of Start Garden’s affiliated organizations, venture capital fund Wakestream Ventures LLC and Seamless IoT, a business incubator focused on Internet of Things technology, or physical objects that can be connected to transmit data. 

USING THE DATA

The network of cities Grand Rapids officials will gain access to includes larger municipalities like Boston and Denver, but also comparable midsize cities like Buffalo, N.Y. and Des Moines, Iowa. 

That access and expertise from the Bloomberg Philanthropies network is provided free of charge to the city, said Becky Jo Glover, customer service director for the city of Grand Rapids and the other main project manager for the What Works Cities initiative. 

“Since the city is already working on the development of an open data portal, the time staff spends collecting the data inventory, meeting with their departmental teams, developing the governance and standards … would already be part of their scheduled work,” Glover wrote in an email to MiBiz. “(B)ecause WWC accelerates the process with existing success across the country, (this) exponentially saves us time in learning the process by using these practices to develop our model.”

While Grand Rapids city officials hope to tap into and make use of many data sets that can be used for better policy making, private sector stakeholders say those data sets also can be used for innovation in the transportation and mobility space. 

“We’re looking at how do we test things and pilot projects, which we’re really excited about in Grand Rapids,” said Matt Benson, the director of strategy for Faurecia Ventures, the investment arm of Faurecia SA, a global automotive supplier with its North American headquarters in Auburn Hills and offices in Holland and Grand Rapids. 

“This is a city looking for ways to collaborate and create an environment in which innovation can happen,” Benson said. “It’s not the biggest around, but it is big enough that a lot of the largest challenges are here, but can be managed.”

A FORCE FOR GOOD?

The city of Grand Rapids has no shortage of initiatives as it seeks to correct what many officials view as widespread inequities in the city, as MiBiz previously reported. 

Forbes identified Grand Rapids as one of the worst cities in the country for economic opportunities for African Americans. A 2016 report from Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, found that the average income of the wealthiest 1 percent in the Grand Rapids-Wyoming metropolitan statistical area (MSA) was 25 times higher than the remaining 99 percent, making it the 59th worst MSA region in the country for income inequality. 

Stats like that demonstrate to city officials that they need to continue their work using any resource at their disposal. 

“We know these problems are large and it can be hard to move the needle,” said Thiel, adding that he hopes other cities’ work in the WWC program can better inform policymakers locally. “I think just like every other city struggling with these issues, we have to try something if we do identify disparities. What we can do is inform that action that we take with the experience of other cities who have had success, or tried things and failed.” 

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