When Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott was under pressure to tackle the city’s longstanding issue with young men and women squeegeeing windows on city street corners, he turned to data.
The city’s Democratic first-term mayor had staff pull together data detailing street corners where the practice was most prevalent, who city staff were interacting with most and call logs from city motorists who were lodging complaints. That information was placed in the hands of stakeholders — police officers, attorneys, business leaders, philanthropists and the squeegee workers themselves — who hashed out a plan that included job placements, anti-truancy initiatives and no squeegee zones.
Seemingly overnight, the city’s squeegee issue “went away,” Scott told a group of mayors convened at the George Peabody Library in Baltimore Wednesday to discuss data-driven problem solving.
“I literally would hear the word squeegee 75 times a day, and I haven’t heard it 75 times since the initiative took effect,” Scott said. “That’s the way we have to use data in a deep way.”
Scott was one of several speakers Wednesday to address the group gathered in Baltimore which included 11 mayors from cities across the United States and nine from Latin American cities. The mayors, convened by Bloomberg Philanthropies, are the latest to join the City Data Alliance, a partnership that offers education on how to leverage data to strengthen city government operations.
Earlier in the day, the group heard from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who praised the mayors in attendance for efforts already underway in their cities to use data, but challenged them to strive for more.
“The fact is mayors need all the support and resources they can get to do more, aim higher, and make progress even faster,” Bloomberg said.
Scott, who joined the City Data Alliance last year and participated in the group’s first class, said he became interested in data as a young City Hall staffer who worked with CitiStat, a data gathering initiative begun under the administration of former Mayor Martin O’Malley.
But Scott said he also approached the use of data knowing his own demographic. A Black Baltimorean raised in the Park Heights neighborhood was “a data point they didn’t care about.”
“I was a person that didn’t exist. I would never appear on the board,” he said. “We have to use that data to influence everything we do, but every data point is a human.”
Failing to recognize the human side of data has driven Baltimore to bad policies in the past, Scott said, including zero tolerance policing and mass incarceration.
Scott encouraged the group, which included Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser and Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba of Jackson, Mississippi, to be transparent with the data they collect and set measurable goals. He highlighted a goal he announced in 2021 to reduce gun violence in Baltimore by 15% annually, a mark the city has fallen short of thus far.
“People are going to look at me like I’m crazy, as they did. That’s what they did,” Scott said. “But if I don’t do that, if I don’t set a goal, if I don’t say this is what we’re going to work for, no one that works for me and no one that’s out in my city is going to believe that we’re actually working to solve a problem.”
Ultimately Baltimore’s residents will decide whether Scott has made enough progress toward the lofty goals announced during his first two and a half years in office. He faces a bid for reelection in 2024.
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Scott touted a program dubbed the Baltimore Data Academy, which started in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies to train city employees on how to use data. About 500 city employees already are enrolled and 200 have completed the program, he said.
Looking forward, Scott said he plans to expand the city’s use of artificial intelligence. Baltimore has been using AI to identify collapsed roofs and vacant city buildings in the wake of a deadly fire and building collapse in 2022 that killed three city firefighters, Scott said.
“AI isn’t coming. It’s here,” Scott said. “We have to be ahead of that and using these tools for our own good.”
Scott also recently announced in his State of the City address that he will hire Beth Blauer, associate vice provost for public sector innovation at Johns Hopkins University, on a temporary basis to work with the city to better leverage data usage. Blauer spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, where she advocated for governments to create uniform definitions for data groups, such as race, and establish standardized age groups to make data easier to compare and analyze.
“Because it’s not happening, you have no idea the collective impact of your investments,” she told the group.
Jim Anderson, the government innovation program lead for Bloomberg Philanthropies, called Scott’s approach to data, in particular the city’s data academy, “very innovative, the program represents a move toward city leaders more widely training their staffs in data.”
“We can’t just rely on a data pod in the mayor’s office,” he said. “Everybody in this digital age needs to have more savvy around data and that includes our public servants and those on the front line.”