Across the county, we are witnessing demographic and societal changes that are impacting our local communities in fundamental ways. And, my community is not alone. Changing populations, values and expectations are impacting how local governments serve their citizens. But, in many of our cities, funds are short so we find ourselves in a position of trying to do more with less.

Are we in a losing battle? Definitely not, because local governments have one resource in abundance: data. Like unmined gold in the rocks below city hall, data can be quite lucrative for a city. Mining data provides a wealth of information that can be used to cut expenses, improve efficiencies and make an organization more effective. Using data strategically can compensate for limited financial and human resources as we strive to meet the higher expectations of our citizens.

Perhaps most importantly, data is at the center of the smart city solutions being implemented in local governments across the globe.
While there are many definitions of what constitutes a smart city, most definitions of a smart city boil down to this: A smart city solution is one in which a local government uses information technology to improve the lives of its citizens. These solutions are enabled through technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), telecommunications, social media, cloud-based data storage and analytics.

Leveraging these technologies, however, creates a new set of challenges – particularly around data’s explosive growth and its management. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), the amount of data created doubles every two years.

Managing data can be a huge task for cities with software systems and databases in different departments at city hall. To integrate and manage their data, some organizations embark on an initiative referred to as data governance, which includes a group of people tasked with overseeing the definition of a set of data procedures and a plan to execute those procedures. Within this initiative, data standards are defined and security rules are established so that data can be integrated. A thorough integration will include scrubbing the data for accuracy by detecting and correcting or removing corrupt or inaccurate records from a record set, table, or database. This scrubbing is essential for the most important smart city technology: analytics.

Once clean data is stored in databases, city governments can use sophisticated analytical software – which employs mathematics, statistics, modeling and machine learning – to turn it into valuable information and insights. Analytic algorithms perform, in seconds, work that would take humans weeks to perform, such as sifting through incredibly large volumes of data, data that is recorded at a rapid clip and unstructured data.  Analytics empowers a local government to quickly identify correlations and trends. Furthermore, high-performance analytics software can process millions of events per second, making the previously insurmountable task of understanding data achievable.

For example, my hometown of Cary, N.C., uses approximately 69,000 automated meters to record water usage every hour for every water customer. That’s 1,656,000 meter reads every day. As impressive as our water department staff is, there is no way that any human could sift through that data to identify anomalous water usage in buildings and homes. Analytic software rapidly processes these records and alerts the water department about potential inadvertent water use. Many of my constituents have recounted how the water department called them to alert them of unusual water use.

Upon investigation, the homeowner has found a toilet leaking or a hose bibb running. Timely notification has saved a lot of citizens a lot of money. In addition, analytic software considers other factors such as temperature and rainfall, to accurately assess overall water consumption and predict future usage. Should we expand our water plant in 2020 or 2021? Analysis of daily water use year over year will help make the right investment at the right time. Of course, that saves our citizens money as well.

The most fascinating aspect of advanced analytics is that we can use software to solve the most complex and confounding problems that our governments face today. Not only can analytics interpret data from meters and sensors, it identifies patterns of behavior and correlations between people, places and events. We can use analytic software to unravel the web of incarceration, homelessness and mental health; to understand and stem the spread of opiate use; to assist law enforcement in solving crimes; and to help students reach their full potential. And, in doing so, data analysis is saving governments money as they strive to improve the lives of their citizens.

Learn more about data management and how data and analytics can address our country’s most critical government challenges in the new book, “A Practical Guide to Analytics for Governments: Using Big Data for Good.”

Jennifer Robinson is the director of local government solutions for analytics provider SAS. She serves on the Cary, N.C., town council.

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