Cities Find Smart Use of Data Can Lure Retailers, Even Get Tax Increase Passed

Palm Springs, Philadelphia, Jersey City Benefiting From Numbers

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Local governments aren't typically considered leaders in innovation. But municipalities including Palm Springs, Calif.; Jersey City, N.J.; and Philadelphia are investing in ways to gather, analyze and expose data about everything from pothole repairs to tourism dollars. And their goals aren't always just about creating transparency for government operations or helping streamline services. They're also using data to help change the way residents and potential transplants view them as brands. Smart use of data has even persuaded citizens to vote for a tax increase.

Palm Springs, Calif.,: Data drive luxury destination's resurgence
"For the last 30 or 40 years … we've been beating ourselves up over T-shirt tourism," said John Raymond, director of community and economic development for the city of Palm Springs. The sunny destination, once synonymous with posh poolside living and shopping, had gained a reputation as "a honky-tonk" rather than a "more elegant desert" city, he said.

Palm Springs is hoping to attract more high-end retailers like Trina Turk.
Palm Springs is hoping to attract more high-end retailers like Trina Turk. Credit: Photo Courtesy of Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism

The city embarked in 2011 on a data-analysis initiative to help drum up support for a new upscale shopping district and improve its tourism marketing. Working in conjunction with data consultancy Buxton, Palm Springs used aggregated data from Visa, combined with demographic and psychographic information, to determine that a significant portion of the city's sales -- 73% of dollar volume -- came from people who didn't live there. And 13% of the money spent in the city was from people who reside in America's wealthiest areas, according to Mr. Raymond.

The numbers helped persuade voters to support a 1% sales and use tax that could be used toward parks, street renovations and an upscale retail area including a hotel in the center of town, he said. He pointed to designer Trina Turk's boutique in Palm Springs as the type of high-end business it attracts.

The data, which Buxton segments on a neighborhood level for geographic targeting, has also armed the tourism department with information it uses to aim marketing messages at key areas where its visitors reside. "Tourism can microtarget a couple of neighborhoods in San Diego or West L.A. or where a high propensity of Palm Springs visitors are from," said Mr. Raymond.

Philadelphia: Brotherly Love for app developers
Like Chicago and New York, Philadelphia has an official chief data officer. Mark Headd leads the city's open-government initiative, providing citizens access to all sorts of city data, such as crime information, financial data, transit schedules and bike-rack locations.

Mr. Headd's position was created last year under executive order "to be open and transparent and to give people access to the data that we generate everyday," he said.

"The biggest challenge we have is legacy systems that are 25, 30 years old," said Mr. Headd.

Providing easy access to city data has inspired third-party applications like Next Septa, which tells users departure times for buses, subway trains and regional trains from chosen stops. Grounded in Philly is another initiative inspired by the open-data project. It uses government data sets including water-department permeability data and land use designation information from the city planning commission to reveal a list of more than 30,000 vacant lots throughout the city.

Jersey City, N.J.: Data gathering moves into the 21st century
When Jersey City's newly elected mayor, Steven Fulop, still sat on the City Council, he sometimes was unable to access data from various departments.

"Mayor Fulop was very aware of the lack of transparency and information and data available, and it's something he's been thinking about for a while," said Brian Platt, aide to the mayor of Jersey City, who's heading up its Dashboard Program, a sprawling data-collection-and-analysis initiative launched in July that encompasses 17 city departments.

The administration, in part, hopes to improve Jersey City's reputation, sullied by a history of political-corruption scandals and a 2009 FBI sting that resulted in arrests of several politicos, including Jersey City's then-Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini. "We are looking to rebrand a little bit and this is going to be part of that," said Mr. Platt. "We want to market ourselves as being a leading-edge city."

The city is taking baby steps. Working with key staff in each department, Mr. Platt has developed Excel spreadsheets for recording data -- everything from the status of cases conducted by the law department to where and when potholes were filled by the department of public works. The information is stored in a shared drive.

Mr. Platt also is working with government software provider GovQA to develop an app for Jersey City residents to submit photos and service requests for government services, similar to New York City's 311 app.

The city aims to work with departments to set targets for service improvements based on the data once there's enough information to analyze. For instance, a goal might be to have potholes filled within 48 hours of a complaint.

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