Editorial: Harnessing data boosts, improves Detroit

The Detroit News

Detroit’s past corruption and mismanagement weren’t the city’s only problems. City leaders and administrators were also blind to potentially helpful information about Detroit’s residents that would have been available through better data collection and analysis.

Mayor Mike Duggan is leading an effort to turn that around. Through competent data collection and management, information about Detroit residents and problems throughout the city is finally making it to those in charge.

To the extent the city previously had data, it wasn’t organized well, according to Garlin Gilchrist, Detroit’s deputy technology director for civic community engagement, who spoke at this week’s Techonomy Detroit conference at Wayne State University Law School.

Two programs in particular highlight the work City Hall has done to improve communication and response for services throughout the city.

Improve Detroit is a website users can access online — or via a smartphone app. It allows anyone to report “running water, potholes, damaged street signs and other issues,” according to the city. The app offers a menu of “common quality-of-life conditions” for anyone to report, while tracking the user’s location. It even allows users to upload a photo of the problem.

The city describes this as a “critical link” between the people and their government, and it is.

“People can trust those reports will be received … and acted upon,” Gilchrist said.

The mayor has also partnered with Data Driven Detroit to improve data collection and offer that information to the public. D3’s open portal system allows users to view and analyze sets of information on Detroit’s parks, churches, even the location of trash receptacles.

Even Detroit’s income taxes, which have been notoriously difficult to pay due to limited city business hours, can soon be paid online.

These kinds of technological improvements — using the collective knowledge of Detroit residents to improve city services and create better neighborhoods — goes beyond fixing broken fire hydrants.

The data now being collected in Detroit is more transparent and can be analyzed more effectively to make better decisions for the community as a whole. Gilchrist says the mayor wanted to improve the flow of information and hear from real Detroiters about their experiences and needs within the city. The process also encourages residents and communities to be involved in decision-making.

Access to current data and information can empower neighborhoods to create plans for themselves and approach city government with how it can implement those plans.

Detroit was behind the times in its dataflow capabilities. But the improvements Duggan has made to sharing and accessing information are critical to building the functional, dynamic and responsive city government Detroit residents deserve.