How Data-Driven Cities Fight the Covid-19 Pandemic

Response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Boston and Los Angeles was remarkably rapid and effective - and data played a key role. What did their city leaders do right?

25. May 2021
6 minutes
Zuzana Pison
How Data-Driven Cities Fight the Covid-19 Pandemic

Diseases shape cities. But what if we could shape cities to fight diseases better? COVID-19 has severely disrupted lives in urban areas around the world. For many city leaders, the pandemic highlighted the use of data in decision-making by helping them address their most pressing challenges.

Below we share some of the most inspiring learnings from cities across the U.S. on how they used data to fight the pandemic.

Keeping Residents Informed: Boston

Cities’ response to the outbreak was significantly more efficient in those places with prior investments in data. For example, in Boston, a multi-year data warehouse project meant that Stefanie Costa Leabo, the city’s Chief Data Officer, was able to provide her mayor with a real-time integrated COVID-19 dashboard in a matter of days.

The dashboard was part of a larger pack of digital services launched by the city of Boston aimed at helping residents cope with the virus. These efforts included a multi-lingual texting service that sends updates about the public health situation, as well as a set of frequently updated fact sheets and guides.

Los Angeles’ Rapid Response

Similarly, because of the developed data infrastructure, Los Angeles’ Mayor Eric Garcetti was able to quickly identify his first response priorities. In doing so, he was supported by his team, who collected and analyzed data and shared real-time information with the public. Based on the numbers, the Mayor prioritized support for families, small businesses, healthcare workers, and homeless residents. He also immediately increased the supply of healthcare equipment and testing kits available for the city.

Los Angeles’ city leaders are now seeing the positive impact of having invested in the initial data capacity. Regular tracking of cases, hospital capacity, and infection rates proved vital to accelerating the city’s response to the COVID-19. Regular, timely and transparent communication with residents is likely to increase trust in the city administration not only during the crisis but well beyond.

Tackling Food Security in Mesa, AZ

Cities also used data to address social issues exacerbated by the pandemic. Using federal relief funding from the CARES Act, the City of Mesa, Arizona, launched a community assessment to learn about the needs of residents, businesses, and non-profits.

Based on the data collected, Mesa rolled out a new program to address food security called Feeding Mesa. The program organized contactless drive-through food distribution directly to households in need. They also hosted food drives to restock Mesa food banks and faith-based pantries.

In addition, the funding was used to support local restaurants, which were closed and suffered financial hardship during lockdowns. City staff purchased meals from Mesa-based restaurants and had them delivered to front-line healthcare workers.

Chicago’s Racial Equity Efforts

COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on people of color. In Chicago, the numbers told a disturbing story from the very beginning. Of the first 100 Chicagoans to die from the virus, 75 were African-American. In response to the daring situation, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her staff created the city’s Racial Equity Rapid Response Team. The team has been developing hyperlocal, data-informed strategies to slow the spread of the COVID-19 and improve health outcomes among disadvantaged populations.

City leaders across the country have been watching this effort closely as they move to address COVID-related racial disparities in their own communities. Other cities exploring the creation of similar racial equity teams include New York City, Pittsburgh, Boulder (CO), and Oakland (CA).

Boosting City Budgets

Even with federal stimulus funds to state and local government, post-pandemic city budgets will be stretched significantly. Mayors and city managers predict their budgets will be cut anywhere from 15 to 40 percent in the next year. It has become increasingly vital to use data to find out what works and where to save.

According to a McKinsey study, governments could capture $1 trillion of value globally by using data analytics to identify revenue not collected and to retrieve payments made in error. The report estimates that using data analytics to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse in government can have returns as high as 10 to 15 times their cost.

The investment in IT, data, and analytics infrastructure is modest compared to the potential revenue gains. Therefore, we could assume that building data capacities could have a real potential to maximize budget efficiencies on every level of government.

Re-building Cities with Data

As case studies across the U.S. show, cities’ data offices could play a central role in the recovery efforts. A comprehensive data strategy and bold leadership are just as essential. Fostering a culture that respects the power of data as key to smart decision-making is yet another must.

The ‘data agenda’ doesn’t score political points among the wider population. Therefore, Public officials’ priorities typically stir elsewhere. To shine some light on their successes, cities could have a public scorecard for each data-driven project. These public notice boards would show expense and return measured in terms of impact achieved and dollars saved. At the same time, it will be just as critical to design convincing communication strategies that will bring data closer to the larger public.

Maybe this could help shift the public perceptions on the importance of data – not only in the post-COVID recovery but also for years to come.