How Data-Driven Cities Respond Swiftly and Effectively to COVID-19

A look into how cities are leaning on existing data cultures in their fight against the COVID-19 pandemic

By Jennifer Park, Lauren Su, Lisa Fiedler, and Madeleine Weatherhead

Since January of this year, the novel coronavirus has swept rapidly throughout the United States, leaving no city untouched. To contain the virus’ spread and protect residents’ health and livelihoods, local leaders have had to act swiftly and decisively. It is a challenge in scope and scale unlike any other in recent history — and it has underscored the power of data to guide life-and-death decisions and build trust.

Take, for example, Los Angeles. As cities across the country began issuing states of emergency and acting to promote public health, Mayor Eric Garcetti quickly identified the city’s response priorities: supporting families, small businesses, healthcare workers, and unhoused Angelenos, and increasing the healthcare equipment and testing kits available for the city. Mayor Garcetti tapped his Chief Information Officer and Innovation Team to collect and analyze data, to inform decisions, and share real-time information publicly.

A snapshot of Los Angeles’ publicly shared data from one of the city’s daily COVID-19 summary briefings. Image courtesy of the City of Los Angeles’ Innovation Team.

The Mayor was soon conducting daily briefings, updating the public on the latest virus-related data and informing city residents about various decisions made by the city — from pausing parking rules enforcement to opening thousands of temporary shelter beds. He used data to justify key decisions, linking stay-at-home orders to a decrease in COVID-19 cases from week to week.

Los Angeles’ swift response built on an existing culture of leveraging data to set goals, make decisions, and communicate with the public. Its leaders are now seeing the positive impact of having invested in foundational data capacity — regular tracking of cases, hospital capacity, and infection rates have proven to be vital to helping and accelerating the city’s responses to COVID-19.

Other cities, too, have leaned on established data practices and infrastructure in their response efforts, both to the benefit of their residents and to lay a stronger foundation to guide recovery.

Utilizing Evaluations to Support Vulnerable Populations

In Seattle, Washington, the city has expanded access to its Utility Discount Program (UDP) in order to relieve residents of financial burdens due to stay-at-home orders. The program offers income-eligible residential customers significant discounts on their Seattle City Light (SCL) and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) bills. Back in 2018, the City of Seattle realized the program was being underutilized. It became determined to increase enrollment among all eligible households, particularly those with the lowest incomes most in need.

Using rigorous evaluation and behavioral science methodology, Seattle’s Innovation & Performance team, along with SCL and SPU, identified through a pilot program that they could increase the likelihood of enrollment by six times if they permitted eligible residents to sign a short form attesting to their household income rather than requiring the submission of income documentation. Based on these initial findings, the city was evaluating options to scale this practice and roll it out as part of its official program in 2020.

Then the virus arrived. With evidence from the previous pilots in hand, Seattle offered residents the option to self-certify their income in March, confident it would boost enrollment. And it has done just that, providing financial relief to those in need during an unprecedented crisis.

Building a COVID-19 Strategy on Existing Strong Partnerships

Tempe, Arizona has also built on past data-driven successes as COVID-19 cases began rising. Over the past year, in partnership with Arizona State University (ASU), the City of Tempe developed a Wastewater Analytics Team to test wastewater for elevated levels of opioids. Using this data, which reveals abuse hotspots, Tempe is strategically deploying resources for emergency medical responses and education and outreach efforts.

City of Tempe Municipal Utilities Department (Water) employees retrieving samples. Image courtesy of the City of Tempe.

When the pandemic began, the Wastewater Analytics Team quickly began testing for the amount of COVID-19 genome copies in wastewater samples on a weekly basis.

On Tempe’s Innovation in Advancing Community Health and Fighting COVID-19 site, the city now shares three dashboards that it developed to display the weekly average of COVID-19 genome copies per liter of wastewater in Tempe’s sewage, COVID-19 cases by zip code, and the city’s demographics by zip code. As Tempe prepares to reopen the city, residents are able to use these dashboards to see up-to-date information and inform their own decisions in the face of national and local uncertainty.

Louisville, Kentucky is also building on strategic partnerships that preceded the pandemic in its response efforts. As the number of unemployment insurance claims began increasing, Mayor Greg Fischer leveraged relationships with Microsoft, local companies, and educational institutions to create the COVID-19 Reskilling Initiative. The initiative offers Louisville residents free access to virtual, self-paced courses in data analytics, digital marketing, software engineering, and user design experience, as well as the opportunity to gain industry-recognized credentials. This program, offered through Louisville’s Future of Work Initiative, aims to expand the region’s qualified tech workforce while also helping those suddenly out of work due to COVID-19.

In the program’s first three weeks, more than 4,000 people expressed interest in learning more, and 739 badges were completed through free, self-led online training. For its next phase, the Reskilling Initiative plans to provide instructor-led trainings aligned with in-demand career paths, helping to build the region’s tech talent pipeline.

Thinking Creatively About Existing Data Capacity on City Staff and Teams

As residents have adjusted to life under new public health recommendations and ordinances, cities have had to adjust how they manage day-to-day operations. Many cities have had to continue providing essential services with fewer employees and less funding, while staff work from home, for example.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, City Manager Patrick Duhaney called upon Chief Performance Officer Nicollette Staton and the Office of Performance and Data Analytics (OPDA) to suspend their normal operations and develop new processes and tools to help guide the city’s COVID-19 response. The OPDA team began holding daily Stat meetings with all city departments to generate COVID-19 daily response reports. It launched multiple dashboards to share rapidly evolving information with internal and external stakeholders — including one to inform residents of impacted city services, another to help the city’s Emergency Operations Center and Fire Department monitor EMS responses to suspected COVID-19-related calls, and a publicly available COVID-19 Case Tracker Dashboard.

The landing page of Cincinnati’s dashboard informing residents of impacted city services. Image courtesy of the City of Cincinnati and CincyStat.

The team also facilitated the creation of many internal and external processes to support staff and the public in navigating Cincinnati’s COVID-19 response and reopening, including standing up a centralized supply ordering system, developing department reopening strategies, and designing outdoor street dining applications.

These rapid shifts to the city’s priorities and actions, all made within a few weeks’ time, were made possible by the years the city invested in strengthening its data, performance, and innovation muscle through OPDA programs like CincyStat, the Innovation Lab, and CincyInsights.

Cincinnati is not the only city repurposing staff to directly respond to the pandemic. In this time of crisis, city chief executives are calling on their data, analytics, and performance teams to supply the data and evidence needed to guide their decision-making. In cities across the country, local data leaders are stepping up to the task.

In Mesa, Arizona, over 100 city employees from the Mesa City Library, Arts and Culture, and the Parks, Recreation, and Community Facilities Departments were reassigned to work on Mesa CARES, a recently launched initiative connecting individuals, families, and businesses who have been impacted by the pandemic with available resources. Using federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the City of Mesa launched a community assessment to collect vital data on priority concerns and needs from residents, businesses, and nonprofits stemming from the pandemic.

City staff and community volunteers distributing groceries as part of the Feeding Mesa program. Image courtesy of mesanow.org.

Based on the data collected, Mesa has rolled out new programs like Feeding Mesa, a program partnering with local food banks and non-profits to increase food distribution sites, supporting local restaurants and caterers by purchasing meals for delivery to those most in need, and hosting canned food drives to replenish Mesa food banks and faith-based pantries. Mesa CARES also operates a call center, staffed in part by librarians, to directly offer reliable information about COVID-19 and the city’s response to residents and businesses.

Similarly, in Boulder, Colorado, the city launched a program called Emergency Response Connectors, designed to equitably distribute trusted information to community members. The Emergency Response Connectors meet weekly with city staff to relay information about community needs and lived experience, while city staff provide the connectors with up-to-date information and resources to spread through their community.

Roughly a third of the connectors are bilingual, live in underrepresented communities, and are paid for their work. The other two-thirds of the team are volunteers who have a history of neighborhood leadership or were previously trained through the City of Boulder’s community resilience class, “Better Together.” Better Together began in December 2016 to prepare the community for natural disasters, with a specific focus on neighborhood connections, and the collective capacity built through the course is now being used to tackle COVID-19. With community needs relayed through this accessible program, city staff can adapt their response and outreach efforts.

By leaning on already established information sharing and stakeholder engagement practices, cities like Cincinnati, Mesa, and Boulder are nimbly adapting their responses to meet the specific needs of communities most affected by the crisis.

Looking Ahead

Every day across the country, local governments make big and small decisions about the services they provide their residents and the ways they should communicate with residents about goals, progress, and rationales behind decisions.

In periods of crisis, when decisions with far-reaching consequences must be made rapidly, the value of a strong data infrastructure is put into stark relief. It is the backbone around which decisions are made and communicated. The examples above show how that backbone can support vital responses to urgent challenges. (What Works Cities has compiled additional examples and resources in this COVID-19: Local Government Response and Resource Bank.)

Hundreds of cities have already committed to deliver the best possible results for their residents using data and evidence by having their practices benchmarked against those outlined in the What Works Cities Standard. Doing so takes strong leadership, a devoted team, and hard work to put in place the practices, processes, and policies needed to build the muscle for citywide data-driven decision-making. As we’ve seen during the pandemic, it’s a vital investment worth making.

All of the cities featured in this piece have achieved 2020 WWC Certification. To read more about each of these cities and their achievements, visit here.

Jennifer Park is Director of Certification & Community at What Works Cities (WWC). Lauren Su is Associate Director of Certification & Community at WWC, Lisa Fiedler is an Associate of Certification & Community at WWC, and Madeleine Weatherhead is a Manager of Certification & Community at WWC.

Have a data tool that your city is using that you’d like to share? Please email info@whatworkscities.org.

What Works Cities is a national initiative that empowers cities to tackle pressing community challenges and improve residents’ lives through data-driven decision making.

Helping leading cities across the U.S. use data and evidence to improve results for their residents. Launched by @BloombergDotOrg in April 2015.