Nine American cities demonstrate how data can improve lives

February 15, 2018  - By

Making cities cleaner, providing better services and housing, and decreasing pollution are all achievements of nine cities recognized for using data to improve citizens’ lives.

In January, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced that nine cities have achieved What Works Cities certification, a first-of-its-kind national standard of excellence in city governance.

What Works Cities certification rates how well cities are managed by measuring the extent to which city leaders incorporate data and evidence in their decision-making.

Having shown leadership in data-driven government, the nine cities will receive additional expert assistance from What Works Cities to accelerate progress and deepen their leadership in using data.

Bloomberg Philanthropies launched What Works Cities in April 2015 to drive the use of data in U.S. municipal governance and to facilitate the exchange of best practices. It has reached its initial goal of bringing 100 mid-sized American city partners into the program. The nine certified cities were selected from more than 115 applications.

Los Angeles was awarded Gold Level, and eight other cities received Silver Level certification. No city has yet achieved Platinum, the highest level.

Accomplishments of each of the certified cities can be found here; below is a snapshot.


Gold Level: Los Angeles

Los Angeles has demonstrated a strong commitment and impressive track record with data-driven initiatives, according to Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Immediately upon assuming office, Mayor Eric Garcetti embraced an aggressive approach to data and analysis to better understand and map the most pressing issues in Los Angeles. Now in his second term, the mayor is using the foundation created by these efforts to develop a system-wide, evidenced-based approach to address the problems of affordable housing, crime, traffic and pollution.

Through its Data Science Federation, the city is also partnering with local universities to accelerate its use of data-driven tools at the same time that it is creating a pipeline to bring new talent into local government.

Among the major accomplishments cited:

CleanStreetsLACleanStat. In 2016, the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation began regularly collecting data to measure street cleanliness levels, allowing the City to more proactively and equitably clean L.A.’s streets, and place thousands of new public trash bins in areas with the greatest need. In just one year, these efforts led to an 82 percent reduction in streets previously rated as “Not Clean.”

With CleanStat, staff from the Bureau of Sanitation drive all of the more than 20,000 miles of the city’s public streets and alleys, assigning a cleanliness score from 1 to 3  —  or from clean to not clean  —  to every block, once a quarter. Those scores are added to the Clean Streets Index, where department officials can keep track of performance and residents can hold the City accountable for its goal to eradicate red grids (ones with a score of 3) by 2018.

Home for Renters Campaign: In 2016, the City of Los Angeles identified areas where housing displacement was likely to occur, and launched a multi-faceted campaign to raise awareness of tenants’ rights under the city’s rent stabilization ordinance, with a particular focus on assisting our most vulnerable residents.

Save the Drop: In 2015, the City of Los Angeles analyzed water consumption data by ZIP code to focus conservation campaigns on regions with excessive water usage, which has helped Los Angeles reach its 20 percent water conservation goal.

Silver Level Cities

Eight cities earned the Silver Level of Certification. Here is a sample of their accomplishments.

Boston, Massachusetts (Mayor Marty Walsh): Achieving What Works Cities Certification builds on Imagine Boston 2030, Boston’s first citywide plan in 50 years. The goal of Imagine Boston 2030 is to guide growth to support the city economy and expand opportunities for residents.

The plan prioritizes inclusionary growth and puts forth a comprehensive vision to boost quality of life, equity and resilience in every neighborhood across the city. Shaped by the input of 15,000 residents who contributed their thoughts to the plan, Imagine Boston 2030 identifies five action areas to guide Boston’s growth, enhancement, and preservation, and is paired with a set of metrics that will evaluate progress and successes.

Louisville, Kentucky (Mayor Greg Fischer): Mayor Fischer signed an open data executive order that considers public information to be open by default. The new LouieStat performance management program evaluates city departments’ work and shares progress with residents.

The city’s Innovation Team is finding creative ways to involve residents in tackling tough problems, sometimes by bringing them into the data-collection process itself. In one project, placing GPS-enabled sensors on asthma inhalers is helping to pinpoint areas throughout the city where low air quality is likelier to induce asthma attacks.


In another project, built at a CDA hackathon, crowdsourcing data on internet speed is helping the City assess the extent of its digital divide and develop a digital inclusion strategy to remove the barriers that are keeping residents from better jobs and other opportunities.

San Diego, California (Mayor Kevin Faulconer), applied data insights and evidence to advance city-improvement projects. After learning that 80% of San Diegans didn’t want to make phone calls to report problems, the city bypassed the traditional 311 model and launched its Get It Done app.

Using Get It Done, residents can report and track progress on a variety of complaints directly from their mobile phones, and response crews are closing the loop by sending “after” photos to residents, who can rate their experience with a thumbs up, thumbs down, or a comment. The app is helping the city become more efficient, too.


Kansas City, Missouri (Mayor Sly James), and San Francisco, California (Interim Mayor Mark Farrell), both found new ways to give citizens a voice in public service projects and increase government transparency.

New Orleans, Louisiana (Mayor Mitch Landrieu), tackled blight and natural disaster response through data, critical in the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Through the BlightStat program, the city set priorities for inspectors and researchers who identify rundown properties and determine whether to levy fines, order a demolition, force a sale, or take some other action.

New Orleans has 15,000 fewer blighted properties thanks to BlightStat, a data-driven performance management program that’s helped the City strategically address the issue. (Photo: Bloomberg)

New Orleans has 15,000 fewer blighted properties thanks to BlightStat, a data-driven performance management program that’s helped the City strategically address the issue. (Photo: Bloomberg)

Seattle, Washington (Mayor Jenny Durkin) made strides to improve homeless individuals’ access to housing.

Washington, D.C. (Mayor Muriel Bowser) is beginning to see its rigorous approach to data spread throughout the city’s public agencies.

What makes these cities special

What Works Cities Certification evaluates whether cities have the right people, processes and policies in place to put data and evidence at the center of decision-making.

Cities are evaluated on factors such as whether they have dedicated staff responsible for helping departments use data to track their progress; contracts are awarded based on past performance; meetings are focused on numbers; key datasets are open to the public; and whether there is transparency in both the goals set and the progress towards achieving them.

“We are proud to recognize these leading cities as the best managed nationwide, using data and evidence to drive results. All over the country local governments are jumping into this movement and dramatically improving how their cities operate,” said Simone Brody, executive director of What Works Cities at Results for America. “Our hope is that What Works Cities Certification will continue to accelerate and celebrate the progress of cities as they improve opportunities for millions of residents.”

What Works Cities Certification has been endorsed by the National League of Cities as well as many of the country’s leading urban thinkers and practitioners. It is part of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ American Cities Initiative, a suite of investments that empower cities to generate innovation and advance policy that move the nation forward.

“Congratulations to each of the nine cities that earned certification for their use of data, which is improving services for people and setting a great example for other cities,” said Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies and three-term mayor of New York City.

“Data allows local governments to know what’s working and citizens to hold leaders accountable for results — but the fact is, many cities aren’t capturing it and putting it to use in making decisions,” Bloomberg said. “The more cities that integrate data into their planning and operations, the more progress our country will be able to make on the common challenges we face.”

This is posted in Featured Stories, GSS Monthly

About the Author: Tracy Cozzens

Senior Editor Tracy Cozzens joined GPS World magazine in 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.