How Katrina drove New Orleans to be a pioneer in data management

4th December 2019 Jonathan Andrews

By Jonathan Andrews

There aren’t many positive outcomes associated with natural disasters but in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005, the urgent need for the better management of data was apparent.

The city began to use data to improve and speed-up decision making, which was essential to the city’s recovery. Government officials realised they needed GIS data, information about properties, and a way to contact owners and to engage with them to start renovating properties.

“We had to get really sophisticated very quickly in how we used information, and that data became a weapon for us and a great resource,” says Kimberly W. LaGrue, Chief Information Officer, City of New Orleans. “One of the most important things for us to address at the time was blight. The number of homes that had not been repaired or even started repair work was concerning to the mayor and his administration.”

Property databases began to be updated and maintained which enabled the administration to employ data more into decision-making processes.

“The culture was formed around our need to use information to assist in the city’s recovery and to make it a viable city once again,” she says. “That then spread throughout city government.”

Kimberly W. LaGrue, Chief Information Officer, New Orleans

What helped further to contribute to the city’s progress was the community’s involvement in the use of data.

“They [the community] were not just giving data, they were taking data and creating data for us,” she explains. “That accelerated and drove the adoption of other datasets and using data in other areas of the city, including public safety and crime.”

LaGrue adds that the technological adoption was built out of need as the community placed demands on the city to assist them in their recovery.

“We weren’t just saying as a city, ‘Hey here is this cool tool, why don’t you use it?’” she says. “It was innovation at its best because they [citizens] were vested.”

A culture of valuing data

Other initiatives began to follow including on performance management, leading to the creation of the Office of Accountability and Performance in 2011. The office helped conduct work alongside Code for America and Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities programme on reducing homicides and improving customer service.

“We very quickly realised that within both of those tracks we were lacking data,” explains Whitney Soenksen, Deputy Chief Information Officer and previously the city’s Data Innovation Manager. “We had to move people from paper processing to digital processing at a city-wide scale. On top of that we were trying to create a culture where people were used to valuing information–that we can also call data.”

Some of those early systems that came online had to be developed from scratch. Soenksen reveals that there wasn’t a lot of historical knowledge to import to “really inborn those systems”.

“We had to look at those systems, and say, ‘Well alright, what are we doing now and how can it be improved?’” she says. “That was how we created those new datasets and moved into the open data movement.”

Whitney Soenksen, Deputy Chief Information Officer, New Orleans

New Orleans began releasing its first sets of open data in 2012 and in December 2016 the city approved its first ever Data Policy laying out the goals and ideals in regard to cataloguing and opening up city data. Being such early adopters though has brought its own set of challenges.

“We did all this before the online and hybrid systems were developed so we had to store it all locally,” says LaGrue. “We have been slow to adopt a shared or hybrid cloud-based storing culture compared to other cities because we entered the game so early.”

When the city was developing its own data warehouses in 2012 to 2014 the option was simply not available.

LaGrue reveals that the amount of data stored by the city is growing at 15 percent a year with the overall budget specifically for this increasing from between 5 to 8 percent each year. The city council is now looking at the possibility of increasing the budget by 20 percent to “rightsize” the operation to then fall back to the 5 to 8 percent mark.

“Right now we are at a place to catch up, and make a pretty sizeable investment in our infrastructure and growth that we have realised over the years,” adds LaGrue.

Preparing for a change in administration

A key to storing all this data is conducting an inventory and discovering potential areas to exploit for better decision making.

Soenksen is tasked with keeping a close eye on and updating the inventory that began in 2015 to show the public what datasets the city has and to also score those datasets, depending on their sensitivity.

It was not only for external use but to provide a more holistic view of what everyone was working on in the city government, says Soenksen.

“What we really wanted to do with the data policy and inventory was to make it sustainable throughout any administration and any high-level change,” adds Soenksen, which the city experienced with a new mayor taking office in May 2018. “If we get a question from an outside entity, another department or a partner that wants to look at “x” data, we at least have somewhere to start.”

Soenksen says that in general, city management has been better informed due to the new datasets, including better budget presentations and preparations. Previously, people inside the city were often not “tuned into the priorities” that were aligned with budget outcomes.

“Using and having data more readily available and tied to outcomes is helping folks budget better and making it more transparent to the public to see what is happening,” she says.

Ten months ago the civil service department came to Soenksen asking her to take a look at their data to build dashboards for them to make decisions from. This has now increased to three different civil service datasets that are related to applications, requisitions and hires.

It includes a new section of its website, the first group to have put out active data with open data embedded onto the city website.

“We are demystifying and giving credibility to using data to the point where our staff in city government use data to advocate for their decision making,” reveals LaGrue.

Police response times have also been improved due to better data insights. In 2016 improved data helped the police to change the way they were deploying vehicles and also allowed for the police department to use resources from the Sheriff’s office.

The city’s residents also remain vested, with the latest open datasets being driven by residents’ demands, including for traffic safety camera citations around tickets, locations, and the type of data coming from cameras.

Soenksen and LaGrue are leading the effort to make data something at the forefront of people’s minds to be used “day in and day out” whether within the administration or by residents.

“You have to make it easier, more available, and less difficult, more user friendly,” says Soenksen. “That is our charge moving forward, to take the data that we have and marry it with other potential datasets.”

A point of pride for LaGrue is that data is no longer seen as an adversarial tool. Perceptions have changed and departments no longer feel that data “exposes or threatens” but it is now seen as a tool and resource to help sell their story or advocate their work.

“It is a fundamental shift in how we work, and in the way we think about information,” says LaGrue. “Data has really helped the narrative of the usefulness of technology and to see adoption of data and data management in our leadership is very helpful.”


ResultsNOLA [New Orleans, Louisiana]

ResultsNOLA is the city’s scorecard for tracking progress towards city-wide and strategic goals. Each year, the mayor and council create a budget that plans how public dollars will fund services to address community priorities. ResultsNOLA is used by city leaders and the public to measure the outcomes of those services.

NOLAlytics

  • uses data to generate new insights into city services and the needs they serve.
  • applies these insights to improve service delivery.
  • helps departments work smarter–using existing data sources and in-house technology to achieve better results with existing resources.

Data Inventory 2018 report

The Enterprise Information team prioritised working with departments to visualise and use their data to make decisions and hosted the first training for this body of work in December 2018.

The city has also continued to inventory and document the data systems they use and datasets they manage and maintain.

“This project helps City Hall staff to understand the importance of maintaining and publishing high-quality, timely datasets through our open data portal at data.nola.gov. It has also allowed us to appropriately categorise and score data for future release as well as encouraging internal and external stakeholders to weigh in on high-value data releases that will foster innovative uses of the city’s data.”

Throughout 2018, the city has:

  • Updated the data inventory resources and continued publishing of inventories;
  • Held three large training events related to data and public information;
  • Coordinated with new staff to identify data coordinators and identified Phase Two of department inventories;
  • Federated the open data catalogue with GIS data and The Data Center’s data, providing a one-stop for public datasets;
  • Held dozens of one-on-one meetings with Data Coordinators to brainstorm and identify “city” datasets; and
  • Codified the process to publish each department’s inventory.

Currently, the team have completed 16 of 57 participating departmental inventories and have another 15 in progress or training. Over half of participating departments have started down the data inventory road.

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