A self-styled techie, Chattanooga's new mayor, Tim Kelly, sits at a desk filled with electronic devices that include two big computer screens, a tablet and a cell phone.
He was clearly delighted a couple of weeks ago when a reporter asked him if he finds any use, or plans any future, for the city's Chattadata.org open data portal, a publicly accessible data information system started under former Mayor Andy Berke's administration. The site catalogs and analyzes things like police incident data, a policing and racial equity dashboard, budgetary public input results and more.
Whirling around to reopen sleeping screens, Kelly pointed to the map and data sets that popped up.
"Yes, I do," he says. "There's some fantastic stuff in here. Every morning I come in and look at the reports."
His data deep-dives, a clear love for the city where's he's spent most of his life and a natural instinct to stir the twin pots of instigation and innovation, likely couldn't come at a better time for Chattanooga — a city behind the curve of economic well-being at the moment.
Kelly talks at length about our city's search for a police chief, getting a handle on ever-morphing gun violence, and steering the city back to active duty in support of our school system and early childhood education initiatives. Taped to the cabinets above his large computer screens is another data set — a crude print-out of what might best be called our city's economic misery index.
It's a jobs growth chart among metropolitan statistical areas about our size. It's from the U.S. Cluster Mapping Project, another interactive data-measuring site from the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness at Harvard Business School. It shows Huntsville, Alabama, and Gulfport, Mississippi, leading the nation in the "percent of traded employment in strong clusters, 1998-2018." Chattanooga, represented by a red dot, ranks roughly in the bottom quarter.
"It just shows that we're way behind, economically, for all of our self congratulatory bull----," he says. "It's a reminder that economic vitality solves a ton of problems. And we can't forget that while we work on all the social stuff, we've got to work on the economic stuff, too. We've got to drive that red dot north and east, or it's all just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic."
Thus ended a 40-minute conversation that began about policing, morphing gun violence, racial inequity and education.
But clearly, data and numbers like these are starting those conversations, too.
Examples from Chattanooga include last year's launch of a Policing and Racial Equity Dashboard which displays citations, arrests, use of force, citizen complaints by race, and details of closed internal affairs investigations from the last two and a half years.
Updated regularly, the dashboard not only creates greater transparency in the city, but also is a publicly available resource to hold CPD accountable for making progress. It encourages the Police Department to use its own data in uncovering policing disparities and making positive policing changes. Soon-to-retire Chief David Roddy cited it recently as the impetus for launching the city's "Lights on" program which allows officers to hand out a voucher for headlight, blinker or brake light repair, rather than a citation. Funded by the department's citation fees, the vouchers are traded for repairs up to $250 at specific participating auto service shops.
Both police and the public have long known that too many police encounters in poor and minority communities turn sour when police target and ticket people for minor traffic violations like a non-working blinker or brake light or headlight. The new program will lessen community and court burdens and can help repair the relationship between a community and its law enforcers.
Another example of technology-driven local governing — and particularly in the crime-fighting area — is an effort to enlist local businesses with cloud-based security systems to voluntarily give police extra eyes when they receive calls for service or report a public safety threat.
The Dragonfly system, so dubbed because dragonflies have almost a 360-degree field of vision, will combine as needed with the city's existing public safety cameras to boost the police department's real-time intelligence center and speed police response.
All of these data sets and the programs launched here in recent months and year have brought the city special recognition as "one of the best American cities at using data and evidence to improve residents' lives."
The 2021 "What Works Cities" certification, launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies, is a national standard of excellence in data-driven city governance. It evaluates how well cities are managed by measuring the extent to which city leaders incorporate data and evidence in their decision-making.
The Biden administration has renewed the emphasis on intelligent deployment of technology to help government and citizens, Kelly said, "so we can expect to see more of this kind of thing and we'll keep looking for something like that that we can use."