This article was originally published by Sarah Wray on Cities Today, the leading news platform on urban mobility and innovation, reaching an international audience of city leaders. For the latest updates follow Cities Today on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube, or sign up for Cities Today News.

Cities have long talked about making data-driven decisions and the coronavirus crisis has brought this to the fore for those responsible for data management.

Chief Information Officers (CIOs) gathered at a recent Cities Today Institute digital roundtable noted the importance of data visualization and analysis during the pandemic – both for residents and decision-makers within the city. Several also highlighted key obstacles to achieving data’s full potential in scenarios like this, and these issues will need to be addressed to boost future resilience.

New Orleans has been one of the US cities hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak but in recent weeks the number of new cases reported each day has continued to decline —  officials say data has helped to drive this result and will be crucial going forward.

New Orleans’ Mayor, LaToya Cantrell, has consistently said the city is focused “on the data, not the date,” when it comes to decision-making. This includes not only phased re-opening in the short-term but also future events as far out as next year.

Kimberly W. LaGrue, Chief Information Officer, City of New Orleans, shared how the Mayor’s Office set up a data ‘war room’ to understand exactly what data was required by key players in the COVID-19 response effort, such as the health department and public safety staff.

“Most important for us was the veracity of the data,” LaGrue said, adding that the team would quickly go back to sources where information was incomplete or inadequate.

Using existing tools such as Power BI, New Orleans set up dashboards which track trends and criteria for easing restrictions.

One dashboard includes both city and state data on daily and cumulative death rates, test numbers, and positive diagnosis figures. This is overlaid with geographical data to highlight hotspots where further efforts need to be focused.  A second dashboard maps the data against baseline milestones set by the city, including the five-day rolling average of new COVID-19 cases and testing, as well as the availability of ventilators, hospital beds and intensive care spaces. Guidance is provided on how to read the data and what ‘good’ looks like, and industry sector guidelines will be added soon.

New Orleans is now in phase one of four reopening stages. Citizens are advised to stay at home but restrictions on some lower-risk operations have been loosened, based on these milestones.  If further indicators for progress are not met or if there is a spike in cases or deaths, stricter measures may be re-introduced.

“Right now, we have flattened the curve,” LaGrue said. “I think that was because people understood the value of having this information and responding to it. Had we not done that, I don’t think we could have crafted a response of the magnitude that we did.”

Economic recovery

The City of Philadelphia’s long history of using geographic information system (GIS) data has also proved central to its COVID-19 response, and advanced location data will continue to be critical in the next steps to support economic recovery, Henry L. Garie, Geographic Information Officer and Chief Data Officer for Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation & Technology, told Cities Today following the roundtable.

Philadelphia’s CityGeo team pulls together data, such as zoning boundaries, permits and building-related information, into the DataBridge data-sharing platform. It is part of CityGeo’s policy that, wherever possible, data should include locational attributes so that it can be visualised and analysed in conjunction with other types of location-based data. ETL (exact, transform, load) processes ensure that when datasets are revised, the most up-to-date information gets pushed to the DataBridge.

This set-up provided a solid foundation when the COVID-19 crisis hit, Garie said. During the pandemic, a City GIS specialist has been based in the Emergency Operations Centre and the wider team have used DataBridge to develop dashboards and applications – for example, tracking hospitalization numbers and ventilator availability for public health officials as well as mapping meal provision sites and Wi-Fi hotspots for residents.

As Philadelphia moves from the initial emergency response towards the recovery and gradual re-opening stage, two new partnerships will deliver additional data in close to real-time to support this effort.

The University of Pennsylvania will provide analysis of anonymized cellphone location data from analytics company SafeGraph. The aggregate data will be brought into Philadelphia’s DataBridge and made available as a service to other city departments.

Using this mobility data, city officials will be able to look at broad trends across Philadelphia, such as movement patterns and the numbers of citizens that visit places such as parks and grocery stores, where they’re coming from, how far they’re traveling and how much time they spend. This data is available down to the Census block level and the insights could help inform decisions in several areas, including planning commercial corridors or shaping public statements and communications.

A further partnership with Mastercard will allow city departments to correlate point-of-sale data with the mobility data to better understand economic trends.

“We’re just at the start of this where we’re starting to ask questions of the data and the researchers,” Garie said.

“The COVID pandemic has made more users within the city see the value of location data, and to have that at the heart of the emergency operations centre was very important,” he added. “Our budget people, economic development people and commerce people have been able to see first-hand that dashboards with maps coupled with graphs and tables of data can be really important to help them visualize and think about alternatives with regard to decision-making.”

Plugging the gaps

One city CIO summed things up by saying the pandemic has seen a shift in focus “away from the glitz and glamour of smart cities to how we can provide accurate data and make decisions using data”.

However, despite the data benefits many cities say they are seeing during the coronavirus crisis, several roundtable delegates – particularly those from smaller municipalities  also reported that they have faced challenges with accessing the city-specific data they need from state governments, which sometimes lack the technology, resources and systems to break the information down to this level. This leaves cities trying to work with the data manually or unable to get the granular insights they and their citizens require.

One attendee commented: “In the next year, we are going to see a lot of politicking around data – and around what rights cities have to [state-level] data”.

“The way that we are able to access this data, and be able to tell our story to our constituents is a huge issue,” they said.

This is likely to drive collaborative work on the development of new agreements and application programming interfaces (APIs) to support better data-sharing at a city, state and national level, as well as with the private sector.

As one attendee put it: “There are huge implications if we don’t learn how to do that.”

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