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Robust Dallas Data Office Drives Efficiency, Saves Money

Hard work, strategy and art go into the work done at the Dallas Office of Data Analytics and Business Intelligence.

cropped Brita Andercheck City of Dallas Data Officer.jfif
When folks say, “everything’s bigger in Texas,” they might not be thinking of the Dallas Office of Data Analytics and Business Intelligence (DBI).

Yet this is one of the largest city data offices in the country, clocking in at nearly 50 employees who work with more than 40 agencies. Led by Chief Data Officer Brita Andercheck, this team has catalyzed dozens of high-impact projects, taught data analytics skills to hundreds of city employees and saved the city tens of millions of dollars.

While it may seem obvious that a larger team can accomplish more work, there are still several strategic ways that a data team must function to achieve this kind of success. And there are returns on investment that must be proven for a city leader to underwrite the creation of a large, well-staffed data office.

Andercheck, a sociologist by training who had previously served as the city’s assistant director of transportation, understood the importance of putting wins on the board right away. As the inaugural director of DBI, she oversaw 50 high-impact projects in the first year that put her office and her team into the limelight.

Much of the team’s early work was outward facing, like the open data portal; crime analytics, employee diversity and domestic violence dashboards; and the 311 service request dashboard. In the first two years there were more than 58 million views of their projects. While Andercheck is also dedicated to the more technical and internal aspects of DBI’s work, like conducting data inventories and audits, she knows the reputational value of big wins.

As a data-driven team, it was a natural inclination to quantify the hours and effort put into their work to calculate a return on investment. Previously, the city hired outside contractors to do this analytics and business process improvement work, so it was easy to compare the cost savings from establishing an internal team. By calculating how many hours DBI put in to complete a project, then comparing the consulting cost for the same work, Andercheck found that the office saved the city more than $15 million in the first two years.

The influence of the office on other agencies is leveraged by its high-visibility location in city hall, with Andercheck reporting directly to the city’s chief financial officer.

The team’s training and technical assistance helps other departments operate better, as DBI has a large enough team to work with other agencies to analyze their issues and make sure that their employees are trained to carry on data work.

Andercheck’s team worked with the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department to conduct spatial analysis on station location and fire risk models, helping them go into the data and take stock of historical information. This helped them achieve two aims: first, predict where fires will likely happen; and second, analyze response times by station. The data analysts reviewed timing based on small areas and neighborhoods, rather than large tracts, so the department understood how more discrete location placement improved response rates and overall coverage in the city. Any new fire stations can be located based on this analysis — but crucially, the fire department will continue to track response times to quickly see any necessary improvements in the future.

Andercheck also understands the power of storytelling. By crafting a compelling narrative from the data, she can help explain and share the value of DBI’s work with city leaders and the public. Dallas is currently working on an extensive equity project that requires significant amounts of data to understand more than 200 equity indicators. Data can show where services are being delivered, who is benefiting from different programs and how the city is addressing issues. This equity data work has been so successful that, for the first time ever, this data will inform the city’s next bond package; equity will be a measure to assess project inclusion in the bond.

Investing in data produces both short- and long-term savings. Building a large office like Dallas’ requires a clear understanding of not only costs, but also benefits year by year. A transparent scorecard that totals savings and program benefits will go a long way in justifying future increases in data infrastructure.

This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of Government Technology magazine. Click here to view the full digital edition online.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He has been a public servant in many capacities and has authored several books.