PATERSON, NJ - Through better understanding and usage of data, Paterson officials hope to enhance how government works and increase the quality of life for those who live and work in the city.
Since last August, the city’s Innovation Team, Harsha Mallajosyula and Ed Boze, has been busy crunching numbers, producing projections and showing city leaders why data matters. “When data is done the right way, it’s easy to see the impact it has on employees and the city,” said Mallajosyula, Paterson’s Chief Data Officer. “It makes people’s jobs easier, helps things get done in a quicker, smarter way and leads to better decision-making for residents.”
Paterson joins a growing number of cities across the U.S. to appoint a data team. In recent years, local governments have increasingly recognized that there is a value beyond merely just collecting data and it can be used to help improve how cities are run. New Orleans, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia are among the metropolises that have hired professionals to manage data collection and ensure it is used to solve challenges and improve overall efficiency.
In August 2019, Paterson moved forward with creating its two-man Innovation Team following Mayor Andre Sayegh’s participation in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a program designed to help mayors and officials handle the challenges and opportunities of leading a city. The team is fully funded for three years thanks to a $750,000 grant from The Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation to Passaic County College Foundation.
Mallajoysula, who brings almost 15 years of experience working with a variety of West Coast startups, non-profits and local government, said he is enjoying his new role. He cited his parents – public sector doctors in India – as one of his biggest influences in wanting to help communities.
“A lot of technologists wind up in Silicon Valley. With the type of work I’m doing in local government, I have the power to improve outcomes for a lot of residents,” he said. “If I worked at Facebook, all I would be doing is increasing ‘likes’ and shares.”
Tracking the Virus
Last month, Paterson became the first municipality in the state to start tracking the number of local and state confirmed coronavirus cases on a public dashboard. Right now, Mallajosyula said, they are “focused on the health aspect – the number of cases and fatalities in Paterson and the state.”
Internally, the team is responsible for projecting cases and what happens based on different scenarios. By demonstrating what various scenarios might look like, it could help guide policy decisions, he said. They’ll also track real numbers against those projections so city officials can “get a sense over time if we are flattening the curve and when we should expect flattening the curve to happen,” Mallajosyula said.
They’ll also be looking at how effective policies have been and what tools the city has to deal with businesses or residents not complying with the executive order, he said.
New Jersey has been under a stay-at-home order since March 21, when Gov. Phil Murphy ordered residents to stay inside except for necessary travel, banned social gatherings and mandated non-essential businesses to closure until further notice. On Tuesday, he extended the state’s public health emergency by 30 days.
Due to the ongoing, state-mandated shutdown, New Jersey’s small business community has taken a hit. In recent weeks, many businesses have conducted lay-offs or implemented furloughs in an attempt to stay afloat. Paterson’s Director of Economic Development Mike Powell said officials are already working to get a sense of how severely business owners have been affected by COVID-19-related closures.
His office is trying to survey local businesses, as well as update them on financial aid as details on resources become available from the state and federal government. Data, he said, will absolutely assist economic recovery efforts because it can help narrow down which neighborhoods and businesses were hit the hardest.
While Powell knows there will certainly be an impact on the city’s tax rolls and budget, he said this could also be used “as a moment for self reflection and reorganization.”
“It may be an opportunity to tweak how we do things,” Powell said.
Diving Into Data
In a city of 150,000 residents and 1,427 full-time employees, Paterson produces scores of data on a daily basis, ranging from crime reports to pothole complaints to handicap permit applications to street closures and everything in between.
The Innovation Team’s job revolves around maintaining the information, making sure it's inventoried and working with public officials to put the information to good use.
“The biggest benefit of staying on top of data is that it’s a way to hold organizations accountable – whether private or public. It sets certain metrics that will ensure an outcome,” said Mallajoysula. “Data can also be used to inform policy agenda for the mayor and cabinet.” Being organized also makes it an easier process to apply for grants, he added.
During Mallajoysula’s first month on the job, much time was spent working with department heads and staff to understand how Paterson collected, managed and analyzed its data. The team is currently building internal and external dashboards for data, as well as “an open data portal,” which will contain city data available to the public.
They have already created an online public tool to track data related to Paterson Plus, the city’s newly-relaunched application that tracks complaints. The analysis examines the timeliness of the city’s response to those reports. Mallajoysula said the site is a great example of how data can give transparency to government when it’s available to the public.
“It can also be used in schools to teach students digital literacy or for economic development and trying to attract new businesses,” he said.
Other Innovation Team projects include:
-Creating “PatStat” – a continuous improvement program focused on metrics/key performance indicators and feedback loops for each department
-Developing an inventory of all data assets owned by the city
-Offering Paterson as a "smart city lab" to startup partners looking to test cutting-edge solutions to urban challenges and helping Patersonians in the process
One of the Innovation Team’s big objectives for this year regards public safety, according to Mallajoysula. The team is exploring ways to use technology to improve public safety, including better deployment of police resources, creation of “virtual” neighborhood watches, data use to help curb gun violence and digitally engaging residents.
In January, the Innovation Team and city administration visited the New York City Police Department to learn how the agency uses data to solve crimes, identify trends and improve overall accountability in the department, Mallajoysula said.
“We are working with the police department on analytics and finding ways to review trends, categories and patterns. That’s a big goal for 2020 – to improve mapping and looking at things geographically,” he said.
“In Paterson, certain wards are more affluent than others. We can look at how it relates to economic development and crime and look ward by ward, especially at the spatial element, how crime patterns have changed over time,” he said.
Another one of the team’s projects involves analyzing how city government can assist with workforce development initiatives throughout Paterson.
Economic development is tied to many other issues, such as real estate, community improvement, public safety, housing, education and jobs, Powell said, which is why it’s “so important” to be able to “coordinate data between all of those elements.”
By working with the Innovation Team, Powell said the department was given “an opportunity to create a new baseline we have never had before.”
“With economic development, things take time and data is critical to show where the needle is going so we can decide if we are going to pull back or push forward,” Powell said. “Good data has the ability to measure performances and can show a job well done or not done at all.”
“It’s a good way to get measured and get it done in an environment that’s been kind of low on credibility in terms of data collection and data driven decision-making. It’s a sign of innovation and forward thinking,” Powell said.
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