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The Case for a Municipal Chief Data Officer

Dating back the beginning of our nation, governments have always been in the business of collecting and analyzing data. In the 1790 census, the U.S. Congress used age categories to determine how many military-age men lived in the United States. Beginning with the 1810 census, detailed data was collected on manufacturing activity.[1] This tradition of data collection and analysis continues today. Governments collect data to do what Alice Rivlin, former Cabinet member and member of President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, described in a 1977 U.S. House of Representatives testimony: “The primary rationale for the collection of additional….data…is to provide the…government with the information it needs to make and implement public policy.”[2] Municipal governments are not much different in their data needs than the federal government. They use data to explore a variety of issues such as which streets should be repaved first, which parks facilities are most in need of replacement, or how well managed public housing projects.

The difference between Rivlin’s 1977 testimony and today is the advent of personal computer (PC) and cheap storage. The PC allowed municipal government workers to store and process exponentially larger amounts of data than they could on mainframes. Cheap disk based storage allowed them to store ever greater volumes of this data (mostly on their local hard drive and Windows file shares). While the data may have been locked in proprietary formats, the capability to do more data analysis was unfolding.

In order to manage this transformation of computing and storage power, city governments followed the private sector’s lead and created Chief Information Officers (CIOs). However, something went wrong. CIOs started managing the infrastructure and not the actual information. No one was managing the lifecycle of the data. In fact, an environmental scan of the 20 largest cities technology initiatives shows that most of their work isn’t around improving data access or decision-making. Instead, it’s about managing device and network lifecycles.

Cities should look to the creation of a “chief data officer” (CDO) to deal with this issue. The City of Chicago has taken this step by hiring such a person. Others should follow suit. The CDO, unlike the CIO, cannot be a pure technologist. Instead, they need to be focused on the core data issues: reliability, availability, and utility. Cities need a CDO who can champion the effective use of data for decision making at the highest levels of government.

This is not just an exercise in spending more taxpayer dollars on more government workers. Cities should view a CDO as an investment in financial stewardship of taxpayer dollars. For example, the City of Portland’s FY10-11 adopted budget was $3.4 billion.[3] If a Chief Data Officer could help the City gain 0.1 percent efficiency through the use better managed and utilized data, that equates to $3.4 million. And what city couldn’t use $3.4 million in this prolonged economic downturn.

[1] Andrew Reamer, Surveying for Dollars, The Role of the American Community Survey in the Geographic Distribution of Federal Funds, March 2010, http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/rc/reports/2010/0726_acs_reamer/0726_acs_reamer.pdf.

[2] Alice Rivlin, Statement before the Subcommittee on Census and Population, Committee on Post Office and Civil Service, U.S. House of Representatives, June 9, 1977, http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/52xx/doc5293/doc17.pdf.

[3] http://www.portlandonline.com/omf/index.cfm?c=53163&a=310557

Disclaimer: These opinions are my own and do not represent the views of the City of Portland.