Kansas City, Missouri, is notable for taking a systematic approach to organizing and publishing open data. Dave Kaup/Reuters

Can Bloomberg Philanthropies establish a national standard for data-driven governments?

Cities talk a lot about harnessing big data, but their efforts vary widely. Some, like New York City, Columbus, and Kansas City, Missouri, have emerged as leaders in using data to tackle issues surrounding transportation, inequality, and health, while others like Anchorage, Alaska, are just starting to mine theirs. All would benefit from more guidance; the more experienced cities need to know they’re on the right track and the newcomers could use a roadmap of best practices.

That’s why Bloomberg Philanthropies is introducing a new certification initiative that aims to set the national standard for how local governments enact evidence-based policies. Think of it as a Good Housekeeping Seal, or LEED certification, but for data-smart cities.

The certification was announced this week at Bloomberg’s second annual What Works Cities summit in NYC, part of the organization’s efforts to expand their current initiative offering technical assistances to dozens of cities over the past two years. The aim of What Works Cities is to help 100 cities by next year; the program has accepted 77 participants so far, with 10 cities joining this year—including Washington, D.C., Orlando, Indianapolis, and lesser-known cities like Corona, California, and Tyler, Texas.

“We were getting interest from cities around the world, and from smaller cities,” Simone Brody, executive director of What Works Cities. “We realized very quickly the demand was really great for this.”

The certification program offers a way for virtually all cities to get involved. The point-based program will award qualified cities a silver, gold, or platinum status based on a list of 50 criteria from Bloomberg’s set of standards. These criteria measure, for example, how transparent the government is, how effectively it uses the data to spot challenges and opportunities, and how well they’re meeting community needs.

“It highlights the cities that are really the model across the country,” says Brody. “Toward the end of this year we’re going to announce the first set of certified cities and they will be the best in the country in doing this work.” Recognizing their work, she adds, encourages the cities to keep up those practices.

Any city with at least 30,000 residents can apply online, but Brody notes that they’re not handing out participation trophies. Cities first tick off the criteria they think they meet. Then for a small percentage of applicants in this round, a panel of experts from organizations like Code for America and the Ash Center at the Harvard Kennedy School will follow up with documentation requests, phone calls, and visits—and they’ve set the bar very high.

In a briefing, Stephen Goldsmith, the director of innovations in American government at Harvard, lays out examples of successful initiatives. Kansas City, Missouri, for example, is notable for embarking on a grand inventory effort that helped different departments better understand the city’s data. Seattle recently passed an open-data policy that enabled the city to codify resident’s priorities and to provide a “community back path” for the city to move forward. Jackson, Mississippi used “granular data-driven analysis” to allocate limited resources amid a budget cut.

At a minimum, to get silver status, cities have to meet at least half of the standards—and not just on one issue, but across the board. Even if cities aren’t certified, though, they can still benefit from applying. “We're trying to help all cities look at the standard and say, ‘Here’s where we are relative to the 50 things we should be doing,’” says Brody. “When a city applies, we won't just tell them how they’re doing. We will give them a roadmap for what they should be doing in three, six, or 12 months.”

Asked whether there’s concern that such a certification program might create unhealthy competition among cities, Brody says it’s just the opposite. “It creates some incentive to collaborate because cities have different strengths and weaknesses,” she says. “Even at the summit, we're hearing a lot of people try to learn from what other cities are doing well. They they know that if they can [help each other] get better, they could both be certified the next time.”

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