Skip to content

Helping Cities Ride a Wave of Data to Improve Lives

MFG Archive, Opinion

In our latest viewpoint, Simone Brody gives insight into What Works Cities, an unprecedented philanthropic initiative transforming the way cities around the country use data and evidence to improve lives.


In cities across America, mayors are eager to make use of ever-growing streams of data to enhance the effectiveness of city services and improve residents’ lives. If you can track why some blighted buildings take so much longer than others to be demolished and rehabbed; if you know that some residents routinely call an ambulance for very minor medical issues; if you can show why some businesses leave a city while others put down stakes – you can use this information to take actions that produce better outcomes for residents, and save money better used elsewhere.


Local officials understand this, but they often lack the tools, skills and expertise needed to implement a data and evidence-based approach to governing.


That is why in April 2015, Bloomberg Philanthropies launched What Works Cities, an unprecedented philanthropic initiative transforming the way cities around the country use data and evidence to improve lives. Over the next three years, backed by a $42 million investment, What Works Cities and its consortium of leading experts will assist mayors and their leadership teams in developing the internal capacity to utilize data and evidence effectively.


A key component of the program is the What Works Cities Standard. A first-of-its-kind framework, developed in collaboration with expert leaders in the field, the Standard describes steps city governments must take to effectively utilize data and evidence to inform their decisions.


Using the Standard as a guide, the participating cities in the program collaborate with world-class experts from The Behavioral Insights Team, The Government Performance Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School, The Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University, Results for America, and the Sunlight Foundation. These experts are supporting municipalities in:


  • Creating sustainable open data programs that promote transparency and robust citizen engagement;
  • Better incorporating data into budget, operational, and policy decision making;
  • Conducting low-cost, rapid evaluations that allow cities to continually improve programs; and
  • Focusing funding on effective approaches and programs.


The What Works Cities initiative is also establishing a national community of cities learning from each other’s work, sharing resources and developing best practices.

Cities’ urgent desire for progress in these areas is clear. In the first 30 days after What Works Cities launched in April, more than 100 midsize cities applied to join the initiative. In their applications, cities indicated their interest in using data and evidence to focus on critical issues including public safety, transportation, blight, homelessness, public works, education and economic development.

This summer, What Works Cities named the first eight cities to participate: Chattanooga, Tennessee; Jackson, Mississippi; Kansas City, Missouri; Louisville, Kentucky; Mesa, Arizona; New Orleans, Louisiana; Seattle, Washington; and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Additional cities will be named before the end of 2015 and others will be joining on a rolling basis through 2017.


Some examples of the work underway:


  • In Seattle, Washington, city leaders are working with the Kennedy School Government Performance Lab to use results-driven contracting to ensure that outside contractors are effectively working to address homelessness.
  • In Jackson, Mississippi, the state’s capital and largest city, Mayor Tony Yarber recently signed an executive order to establish an open data policy and practice – and has solicited residents’ input about the data they want to use – with the aim of releasing data from city departments and establishing the city’s first performance management program.
  • And in Mesa, Arizona, the city used data to determine that it could save considerable funds and respond more effectively to fire emergencies by sending a smaller response team and vehicle to low-level emergency calls instead of sending a fire truck to every call.


What Works Cities’ mayors are beginning to define a new level of achievement in city government. As Sunlight Foundation President Chris Gates said recently, using data for results-driven management is the “next wave in the 100-year-old effort to reform the way cities are run.”

Many thanks to Simone Brody for her contribution. Make sure you follow what she and What Works Cities are up to by following them on Twitter at @WhatWorksCities.

To stay up to date with the latest Markets For Good articles and news, sign up to our newsletter here. Make sure that you are also following us on Twitter.