In Minneapolis, it's not the potholes, it's the data

  • Article by: CAM WINTON
  • Updated: April 9, 2014 - 7:53 PM

Minneapolis needs to bring computing into the 21st century to achieve efficiency.

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Minneapolis city workers Ben White and Mike Flaherty patched potholes near the intersection of 4th Ave S. and 24th Street in Minneapolis last month.

Photo: Bruce Bisping • Star Tribune,

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Minneapolis City Hall has one of two problems: Either it intentionally fixes the potholes of rich, white people faster than the potholes of poor, minority people, or the data-collection system it uses to perform basic functions is asleep on the job.

The background: Last week, the Star Tribune relied upon city data to conclude that City Hall responds more quickly to pothole complaints in wealthier, whiter areas of the city. The Department of Public Works rejects any claim of bias, and instead has tried to downplay the discrepancy as representing “strictly a paperwork process” (“Minneapolis fixes potholes citywide,” April 8).

I came to know Mayor Betsy Hodges well in the course of last year’s mayoral campaign. In her personal work and in the tone she’s set from the top, she has a tenacious commitment to equal treatment for all Minneapolitans. That leaves the data-collection problem as the culprit.

But let’s not let the city’s data delinquency slide by and write off the episode as just the result of “a paperwork process.”

There are two key problems with how the city tracks data about the functions it performs: First, City Hall’s methods for tracking data are antiquated. Second, the culture of analyzing that data to drive decisionmaking is sorely lacking.

In an age of cloud computing and mobile devices, City Hall is doing the data equivalent of running an old AOL CD-ROM via a dial-up modem. Under its Results Minneapolis data-tracking system, the city issues static data points for each city department a couple of times per year in PDF, the most user-unfriendly format available. The data are out of date the moment the city publishes them.

In contrast, a modern data system would provide real-time data points from GPS-equipped city service trucks to the cloud. Civic-minded computer geeks, residents, journalists, the mayor herself and any other stakeholders could then slice and dice the data to provide suggestions for improvement and hold the city accountable for how it spends the money it collects from us under force of law.

In particular, volunteer computer programmers associated with the burgeoning open data movement — many of whose leaders are right here in the Twin Cities — are ready, willing and able to crunch this government data out of commitment to the city’s well-being.

The effort to equip city trucks and personnel with GPS and task-tracking devices would cost money, of course. Where should it come from? This year, the city is spending a nonrefundable $1 million on preliminary engineering studies for a streetcar line that will never get built. The city would do better if we implemented a modern data-tracking system to take care of the infrastructure we already have.

Regarding the culture of using that data: Hodges has set the right tone from the top. As she said in response to the pothole controversy: “The first step is to make sure we’re getting good and consistent data.”

Unfortunately, Public Works appears unaware of the potential benefits of working data into the feedback loop. As its director said in response to the Star Tribune’s conclusions: “Different supervisors handle the paperwork differently. While we do see value in standardizing that reporting moving forward, that’s a back-office function that does not affect the repairs residents are seeing on the streets.”

That statement reflects a missed opportunity. If the city consistently tracked how it spent time and money on a given service, then rolled the results into the next round of service, it could provide the service more effectively each time — and that’s exactly the kind of thing residents should see on the streets, whether in paving, plowing or any other city function.

To achieve this goal, the mayor, the City Council and city department heads need to set clear expectations, provide praise and compensation when employees meet those expectations, and hold them accountable when they don’t. Sure, there are employees whose job descriptions mention data-tracking and analysis, but if someone as important as the Public Works director isn’t getting the memo, then the current efforts are insufficient.

In short, it’s not rank bias driving pothole response — it’s data ineptitude. But either problem will equally prevent us from moving our city forward for everyone.

 

Cam Winton, a candidate for mayor in 2013, is an energy industry attorney and a resident of Minneapolis.

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