Our ideas died before they even got out of the basement

Denice Ross, along with New America National Network Fellow Tara McGuinness, has been researching place-based innovation networks. They’ll soon be releasing a map of where these networks operate and links to help local government staff find networks into which to tap. Tweets her at @denicewross

From The Commons: We say this from first-hand experience: so many people doing problem-solving work in and around government have never heard of many, or sometimes any, of these local networks. But for local governments, they are often critical to sourcing new ideas, collaboration, and change. Denice and Tara’s work to identify, map, and share these networks and the opportunities they bring is vital–both to individual communities and also to our collective growth and improvement as a field.

As protests in Ferguson transpired in late summer 2014, Lamar Gardere and I sat deep inside New Orleans City Hall, talking about how we might build trust and accountability between our police and our community. I was in charge of New Orleans’ open data initiative, and Lamar, soon to be the city’s Chief Information Officer, was overseeing implementation of the police department’s early intervention system. Per a Department of Justice consent decree, the city was required to create an early warning system to identify officers with behavioral patterns that foretold higher risks of misconduct. This would require collecting and integrating multiple data streams, some of which had never before seen the light of day.

We were intrigued by what might happen if we made some of this data available to the public in an open format. It could be game-changer for building trust and increasing accountability. But, in that windowless room, we talked ourselves out of it. We didn’t have the staff time or resources to make it work. We weren’t confident about the data quality. Most importantly, our demoralized police department wasn’t ready to be first in the country to release revealing and potentially contentious open data in the name of transparency.

Like many innovations, our ideas died before they even got out of the basement.

A few months later, I moved to DC for a Presidential Innovation Fellowship (PIF). National conversations on police use of force continued to churn, in large part due to lack of data. How bad is it? Is it getting better or worse? Is it worse in certain places? Inspired by national networks focused on cities like 100 Resilient Cities, the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, and Code for America, we created the Police Data Initiative.

The premise was simple: police departments would team up with their Mayors and IT leadership to open at least three data sets about policing, and would report out successes and challenges along the way.

We thought maybe we’d get three or five police departments to join. Fourteen showed up at our first convening. Three years later, the network is 139 departments strong. They’ve released nearly 350 data sets, changing public expectations about what data police departments should make available, and shifting law enforcement perspectives on what it means to be a modern, accountable organization.

What seemed impossible from our windowless room in City Hall became a reality.

So what changed?

The daily grind of public service can snuff out even the brightest spark of innovation. Technologists serving the public interest often start with visions of using our technical skills to create new ways of solving big problems, but instead find ourselves self-censoring while we scramble to put out fires.

Part of the problem is that it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one pushing the boulder up the hill. But there are many others doing the same thing in communities across the country. Something magical happens when these civic innovators gather, share goals and ideas, and participate in experiments to advance their collective cause— which is what happened with the Police Data Initiative. Police departments around the nation that felt unable to open up their data on their own, when given a little guidance and a sense of being part of something larger, created a path forward. And it’s not just police data.

In recent years, we’ve seen a proliferation of these networks. Networks like Bloomberg’s What Works Cities, Living Cities, the Big Jump Project, and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network are reinvigorating public service and public servants. These networks make experimentation more efficient, because participants can watch parallel efforts across places, learn from others’ mistakes, and adapt practices that best fit their community. They lower the risk of innovating by providing examples, inspiring cities to “punch above their weight” in order to be able to contribute in a meaningful way to larger initiatives, and lending a national platform for celebrating local successes so that local places can view themselves as national leaders.

Many of us working in civic tech don’t know about these networks, but we should. Alliance for Innovation, now nearly 200-cities and towns strong, started when ten managers in different Florida municipalities banded together to figure out how to bring innovation to local government (all the way back in 1979!). Benchmark Cities is a network of 29 police chiefs from mid-sized communities around the US who meet up annually to set goals and compare their data. Many of these initiatives start small before tackling the big problem. Built for Zero is a network of 75 places that uses aggressive goal-setting, inspiration from peers, and a proven data innovation to create a by-name list of the people in their community experiencing homelessness. Seven Built for Zero communities are actively reducing the number of people on that list every month, and three have functionally eliminated chronic homelessness.

And what happened in New Orleans?

Emboldened by the rising national movement of data transparency in policing, New Orleans joined the Police Data Initiative. Lamar deftly aligned local priorities with participation in this national network, and charted a path for the city to become a national leader in the space. In the year after opening their police data, citizen satisfaction with the police increased by 16%, and the federal judge overseeing the department’s consent decree described their data work as a “miraculous transformation.”

So for latent innovators tucked away in their metaphorical local government basements across the country, know this: you’re not in this alone. Find your people––the ones who are working the same struggle in communities across the country. Join or create your own network to tackle challenges in parallel, together.