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What people want now: Data-driven insights

Government agencies know they need to do a better job of using data-driven insights to offer better services — and their smartphone-connected constituencies won’t let them forget it.

“We’re all digitally empowered, so our expectations rise practically continuously — they never really stop rising,” said Michael Barnes, an analyst at Forrester Research. “We expect more from all the different institutions or agencies or companies or anyone we deal with because we know that that information is available.”

I talked to Barnes, who lives in Sydney, by Skype earlier this month, as Texas began its cleanup after Hurricane Harvey and Irma plowed over the Caribbean toward Florida. Predictive analytics played a big role in forecasting the paths and potential devastation of those storms — and increasingly, people want that kind of future-telling information from their governments when natural calamities are bearing down, Barnes said, because they know what technology can do.

‘A virtuous circle’

For example, it may be possible to predict potential flooding from a coming storm in a certain neighborhood of a city and locate people in that neighborhood, their smartphones serving as beacons, Barnes said. A government agency can send people an alert “that someone a few blocks away maybe doesn’t get because they can pinpoint the potential ramifications of a particular disaster down to that level.”

And when people get those data-driven insights, he said, the reactions and responses to it get shared by tweet or by text — for example, Water’s rising downtown, get out! — to others the government alert might have missed.

“So it becomes a bit of a virtuous circle,” Barnes said. “They’re going to share that with other folks. And if organizations are in fact increasingly insights-driven, they will act on the responses to their services as much as to the external sources of data they’re accessing anyway.”

I wondered then about competition facing municipal governments. Could a technology vendor offer an app using data-driven insights to provide more accurate warnings about natural disasters than any government ever could?

“I suppose anything’s possible, but I don’t think it’s realistic,” Barnes said. “There’s always a potential for a business to pursue a service if there’s profit in it. In the case of early storm warnings, I’m not sure what the business model would be.”

Open to open data

What’s far more realistic, he said, is tech companies offering up their vast amounts of data — at no charge — to cities and towns so they can act on it. Ridesharing company Uber, for instance, this year started providing data on the trips its app tracks to governments and other organizations so they could study traffic flows and ultimately make better decisions on transportation. That may help in designing evacuation routes, for example.

For Uber, the benefit of sharing data with government agencies is clear: “If that improves the agency’s ability to act — because they have access to, say, the traffic patterns, as an example — that is in Uber’s interest in terms of overall marketing and brand building,” Barnes said.

Waze is another company dealing in open data — that is, data available for free to everyone. A 2016 Forrester report Barnes wrote cited Montreal and Jakarta, Indonesia, as cities that are collaborating with Waze on its Connected Citizens program. The Google-owned company, whose navigational software is based on user-submitted information about road closures and traffic conditions, shares its data with partnering cities, enabling them to “respond more immediately to accidents and congestion and reduce emergency response times,” the report read.

Of course, there’s always a chance for an early-storm-warning app on your iPhone XX, but probably not anytime soon.

“Near term, it’s far more likely that firms will look to share their data with government agencies and allow the government agencies to take the lead on things like emergency response,” Barnes said.

To learn more about how municipal governments can use data for better decision-making before, during and after natural disasters, read this SearchCIO report.