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Data & Analytics in Local Government

Panel Discussion: Utilizing data and analytics to improve decision making and service delivery

Featured speakers

  • Andrea Mckinney, General Manager, Corporate Services, Town Of Orangeville
  • David Messer, Program Manager, Data and Technology, Smart Cities Office, City of Guelph
  • Duncan S. Rowe, Manager, Analytics and Visualization, Data, Analytics and Visualization Services, Corporate Services, Regional Municipality of York
  • Jazz Pablo, Director, Information Services, City of Kelowna

The Importance of Data

Local governments manage large sources of information and data and are involved in a wide variety of work, much of it underpinned by data. In fact, data often allows various local governments to collaborate and was crucial during the height of the pandemic. Jazz Pablo, the Director of Information Services at the City of Kelowna in southern British Columbia, says that in order “to solve common problems,” particularly the large ones “that we see across the country” like homelessness and other forms of inequality, “we need to come together. It’s all about relationships. COVID has taught us that.” Data is hugely important in solving major challenges, but at the end of the day, “it doesn’t matter how great your data quality is if we’re not working together to come up with a common solution.”

“We use data right at the core level of our existence, as a City. It is about the people and the financial terms. The pandemic was a good wake-up call because we weren’t necessarily using our data previously to focus on the things that mattered. With data modeling so much a part of the discussions around dealing with the pandemic, it also normalized it and took it away from being just an IT function. That made a big difference.”

Jazz Pabla, Director, Information Services, City of Kelowna

Andrea Mckinney, the General Manager of Corporate Services for the Town Of Orangeville in Dufferin County in south-central Ontario, says that “municipalities often view themselves as unique,” but in reality, “they just have different priorities for a common set of problems.” As such, councils “often end up reinventing the wheel.” What they should be doing is “sticking together to share frameworks. Data is a great way of engaging with our communities and developing those frameworks.” In many ways that were proven during the pandemic.

Duncan S. Rowe, the Manager of Analytics and Visualization, Data, Analytics and Visualization Services within the Corporate Services department at the Regional Municipality of York in southern Ontario, says that COVID-19 “exposed a single source of the truth and reinforced the value of the data on our master plan.” During the height of the pandemic, “we needed an authoritative list of all care settings and providers in the community, so having that data trusted in our pocket was so important.”

For David Messer, the Program Manager of Data and Technology in the Smart Cities Office at the City of Guelph in the County of Wellington, about 100 km west of Toronto, data is being used in a unique way. They got funding to run a project “called ‘Our Food Future’, which is all about creating Canada’s first technology-enabled circular food economy.” The City of Guelph is the leader, but “I work with about 150 collaborators across our region to try and create a new sustainable circular food environment.” The project is in its early stages, and “last year was really all about finding data and pulling data together from different collaborators.”

Coping with the pandemic

Duncan Rowe says that data has been really important throughout their entire region during the pandemic because as part of the public health response, it “has provided a high sense of confidence,” in part because through data, “we can ensure everybody has similar perspectives.” However, as much as COVID-19 was an equalizer, it also became the sole focus for many public sector institutions. Jazz Pablo says that when the pandemic first hit, “all of the extra-curricular things that are nice to do, sort of disappeared.” In part that was because there was a lack of cash flow. In the City of Kelowna in particular there are a number of casinos that provide constant cash injections into the City, “but as soon as the casinos shut down, cash flow gets tight.” In the first instance, to cope with that, they began by “creating some predictive models.” Beyond the financial impacts though, there were other things to deal with too. “We did daily health checks, but simply getting the information is the easy part. We then had to present that data back so we could make decisions right away. We were literally making these data models and dashboards on the fly.” The City also became responsible for counseling services and managing people.

The pandemic really stressed the need for restaurants and other organizations to work together. Data is the layer that can help them all make smarter decisions in a very unpredictable world.

David Messer, Program Manager, Data and Technology, Smart Cities Office, City of Guelph

Andrea Mckinney says that although there are no casinos in their region, they still had to think about the impact of financial losses as a result of the pandemic. In some way, they re-invented themselves as a provider, responsible “for the community’s mental health and well-being.” Moreover, the pandemic gave the municipality a chance to re-assess and to “enable businesses to use our data platform as a business resiliency map.” In other words, they are “using analytics, and specifically the crowd management function to ensure that we are able to keep public spaces open through the use of AI-based camera technology.” The idea of this is to inform businesses “about when traffic will be at its highest, particularly monitoring the frequency of pedestrian foot traffic” as businesses recover post-pandemic.

David Messer says that although much of the rest of his office was dealing with the effects of the pandemic, he had “federal funding to do something else.” As part of their food project, they are “working with about 27 different food relief organizations right now and doing geo-mapping” on where people get their food from. As a result of the pandemic, some of these organizations began delivering food to vulnerable people. When people didn’t want to go out, they noticed that many began “planting edibles in their neighborhoods.” As a result, the municipality created “a map of all the different community garden options and all the trees producing edibles.” The main focus of the whole project “is to create an urban-rural living lab where we can move from the idea of taking food waste and repurposing it as a resource to really implementing solutions.” This means working with universities and start-ups – “about 40 different companies” – “to re-use what was once waste.” The pandemic provided an opportunity for many of these companies “to collaborate in ways that they hadn’t before.” For instance, some restaurants across the County are “creating restaurant data cooperatives so they can all share information and work together in a shared environment.”

Show people your idea for your big project. It might be something that is five years away from completion, but give them a taste. It is something they will be able to see and associate with. Then find your data champions and bring them together, just one step at a time.

Andrea Mckinney, General Manager, Corporate Services, Town Of Orangeville

Duncan Rowe says that another lesson from the pandemic is that systems and processes “are interconnected. The success of any program or service delivery is only as strong as those that are contributing to it.” There are opportunities for collaboration now that never previously existed, and “an openness to accelerate that journey.” In their municipality, one of the ways that they are highlighting some of the data issues is through “our ‘Data Hero Campaign’, where we shine a spotlight on people who are taking care of our foundational data assets.” They are also partnering a lot more than before and “building a sense of camaraderie” within their offices. This helps them with motivation and planning.

David Messer says that they too are partnering. In fact, as part of their smart cities initiative, they are “creating a data utility for Guelph and Wellington County – a utility that provides data services to the whole community, much like a water utility or power utility.” For the food project, will incorporate “restaurant and farm cooperatives to control their own data.” The real benefit will be “if a new restaurant comes to town, they can plug in and get all sorts of data that everyone is willing to share with them.” Ultimately, this will “help everyone improve their operations, improve sustainability and improve social outcomes.”

Using data better

The pandemic has shown just how necessary data can be. At the same time, there are organizations and individuals who are still skeptical and hesitant about data and its implications. One of the reasons for that could be, as Jazz Pabla says, that “some people are afraid of data because they are may be afraid of the story that it’s going to tell.” This means that people working with data need to show more empathy and maybe also “take the data function out of IT.” As much as dashboards and performance measures are useful, “we have to be aware before we start making them that some people don’t want to use or see data because they just don’t know what it’s going to tell,” or they know that it will not validate their assertions. On that point, David Messer says that “we should take the tech out of it as much as possible. People don’t really need to know too much. All they really need to know are the tangible business values that come out of the data.” This is particularly true for small businesses and start-ups. “A lot of the work that I’m doing is literally with organizations where there’s one laptop managing all the inventory, with dodgy internet service. A lot of people are way behind where something like a large municipality is at, and it is often very overwhelming.”

Andrea Mckinney agrees and says “it’s important to be able to demonstrate the business value. Don’t focus on the technology but focus on the outcomes you want. Start small and show quick wins.”

Sometimes projects are a slog, but I’ve never seen a period where we’ve gone backwards. We have issues and problems, but data can help us to come together to solve these problems, so I am feeling optimistic. The future is bright.

Duncan S. Rowe, Manager, Analytics and Visualization, Data, Analytics and Visualization Services, Corporate Services, Regional Municipality of York