Buffalo's Data-Driven Clean Sweeps

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The City of Buffalo uses data to identify areas that require help, allowing the city to be more effective in its outreaches.
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Managing a company is tough, but managing a city requires just as great a commitment, especially when talking about a large city with a population of about 270,000 people.

The City of Buffalo was facing serious social and economic challenges in the past decade including mass unemployment and increased crime and drug activity. This led to a greater need for human services and resources to address a multitude of issues that went beyond just fixing a pothole but also dealt with education, unemployment, and healthcare, amidst severe budget constraints.

Recognizing the need to identify the areas of greatest need, the city decided to leverage Big Data to pinpoint the areas that required most assistance and target services. The intention was to improve the quality of life of city residents while making the most of scarce resources. Oswaldo Mestre, director of Buffalo's Division of Citizen Services notes that the plan was to embark on an interagency collaborative approach that would allow different departments to work together during clean sweeps to address multiple issues in one location. "We wanted to tackle problems in a more holistic way," he notes.

Although these clean sweeps had been underway for several years, there was no data-based reason for the areas targeted. Many different agencies were collecting their own data, including Buffalo's 311 Call and Resolution Center, which receives more than 300,000 verbal complaints from residents every year that are imputed in the KANA LAGAN system. But data was siloed, and the first step, which kicked off in 2010, was to bring this together to determine the areas that required the most attention, and quickly identify neighborhoods at risk and requiring the services of its Clean Sweep program.

Working with the IT department, Mestre created maps that pull data from different departments and give an at-a-glance view of problem areas. Mestre notes that the maps can quickly identify areas where poverty, crime, and 311 calls overlap indicating the need for special attention. "We are more nimble at being able to pinpoint areas of need and organize outreach," he notes.

One of the differentiators of Operation Clean Sweep is that it requires service providers to have direct interaction with residents in their environment, and at the same time witness the impact their service had or will have. Mestre notes that new issues were also identified, for example a particular area needed better access to dentists that led to partnership with a dental school to offer the needed services.

Better data is allowing the City of Buffalo to acquire new partners, a number which grew by more than 400 percent since the organizers can reach out to partners whose services are required. This was due to the ability to better pinpoint challenged communities and actively seek out organizations that could address the problems that residents are facing.

Further, the removal of debris, street repairs, tree pruning, and demolition referrals also went up, indicating that better data is increasing the impact and focusing efforts in areas that need it. Other successes include an increase of 79 percent in the number of squatters found and offered services in vacant homes, an increase of 135 percent in referrals for weatherization, and an 86 percent increase in applications for the Mayor's literacy program.

While in 2012 the Clean Sweep task force carried out 27 sweeps and two mini sweeps citywide, the 40 partners currently taking part in the initiative is carrying out a sweep every week.

EXPERT OPINION
EXPERT OPINION