“People talking to people is still how the world’s standards change,” Gawande wrote.
Digital communication means that nowadays the talking doesn’t need to happen face to face. Urban data innovators can share their ideas and projects remotely, provided they know where to look and who to talk to. But there are still several hurdles between the idea stage and an active city data service.
For starters, Schenk says, there can be intellectual-property issues. If the code belongs to someone, another city can’t just take it. The open-data approach deals with this problem: cities can choose to share their work with whomever may be interested. But if the programmers build a project using expensive paid or proprietary software, other city governments probably won’t have access to it. That’s why the Chicago team worked with R, an open-source statistics program.
That leaves the requirement that a city have someone on staff with the technical ability to work with that software. This is less of a problem now, Schenk says, because it’s getting easier for governments to find eager partners at academic institutions and community groups who have the expertise and want to help. But that’s not all.
“The specifics do change between cities,” Schenk says. “To even pick up code and adapt it to your specific business practice still takes work.” Maybe another city’s public-health department collects or formats their data differently, so the algorithm needs to account for that. Maybe the salient variables correlated to health violations differ empirically from city to city. At the very least, before a municipality spends taxpayer dollars to convert its restaurant inspections to a data-driven approach, they need to test that the approach works in that city.
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Chicago passed around the free samples, but a year later only one government has taken a bite: Montgomery County, Maryland, just northwest of Washington, D.C. The county hired a private company called Open Data Nation to adapt Chicago’s code for use in the new location. Carey Anne Nadeau, who heads the company, ran a two-month test of the adapted algorithm in fall 2015 that identified 27 percent more violations in the first month than business as usual, and finding them three days earlier.
“The big win is it’s replicable—this is the first time anyone has been able to adapt the algorithm from its initial development,” she tells CityLab. “It’s possible to do this outside of Chicago.”
Not only is it possible outside of Chicago, but it’s possible in a radically different built environment, says Montgomery County Chief Innovation Officer Dan Hoffman. The county sprawls across 500 square miles, including urban, suburban, and rural territory. Success there speaks to the robustness of the approach.
To get to that point, Nadeau’s team added some variables to the roster used in Chicago, like Yelp reviews and nearby construction permits (construction seems to stir up pests and dust, leading to deterioration of food safety). So far, the revamped algorithm has only succeeded in theory, so real-world trials are needed to see if those results hold during day-to-day operations. Next up for Open Data Nation is to produce a mobile app for health inspectors and to build out similar algorithms for 10 other cities.