While many municipal leaders need to spur growth, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s (D) greatest challenge will be shaping it equitably.
Despite the District’s budget deficit, it approaches its challenges — affordable housing, educational disparities and equitable economic development, among others — from a position of strength: The District has economic growth, diversity and a talented and technologically sophisticated workforce. If it can master the challenge of inclusion, ours can truly be a world-class city.
Solutions to many of the problems facing the new mayor depend on getting up-to-date information into the right hands and using it well. To make good on Bowser’s promise to expand opportunity to all eight wards — for example, to improve housing affordability in one of the tightest real estate markets in the country and create schools that work for all students — the District will need to embrace wonkiness and strive to become a data-driven city.
Consider affordable housing for lower-income D.C. residents. Rising demand has strained the supply of rental housing, with lower-cost units rapidly disappearing. Assisted housing, a crucial safety net for low-income renters, is in danger of vanishing altogether. We must build more housing that’s affordable for renters of all income levels and target resources to preserving existing housing units.
Sharing data among members of the DC Preservation Network has helped coordinate efforts to preserve about 15,000 primarily federally assisted housing units that are at risk, but many other affordable properties aren’t tracked well and are in danger of slipping beyond the reach of the city’s low-income tenants. Without current and accurate data, we can’t identify preservation priorities and direct resources effectively.
The city’s charter schools present another opportunity for data-driven policymaking that expands opportunity more broadly. Today, charters account for 44 percent of D.C. public school students. Many of those students commute well beyond their neighborhoods to attend school, with students who live east of the Anacostia traveling greater distances than most. If data on travel time and distance were regularly analyzed and neighborhood equity used as an explicit criterion in siting new charters, it would lessen the disproportionate burden on families who live east of the river to exercise public school choice.
The District became a pioneer in 2006 by launching the first portal for open data, letting anyone use, modify and share available data for any purpose. More recently the city has made significant data policy strides, including creating the position of chief data officer. Bowser’s transition committee committed to advancing open data. The mayor has charged Kevin Donahue, her deputy city administrator, to lead CapStat, a data-driven performance management system.
These are all good steps. But to create an information culture commensurate with the District’s potential and the scale of the challenges it faces, the Bowser administration can do more:
1. Develop a strategic plan for how to improve and open the city’s data;
2. Catalogue current data assets;
3. Create incentives and directives to ensure that all city staff, from front-line personnel up to management, find value from using data in their work;
4. Engage advocates and community residents around the collection and understanding of information;
5. Enlist the help of data scientists from local universities, think tanks, federal agencies and the technology sector; and
6. Use data to engage surrounding jurisdictions in shared challenges.
All of this should be cemented in legislation. Open data now falls under the purview of multiple city offices. Most of the progress the District has made in open data has been driven by executive action. New initiatives tend to leave little room for the last leader’s priorities. This mayor should collaborate with the D.C. Council on legislation to establish a permanent open data infrastructure to support policymaking across all aspects of city government.
The District is young, diverse and growing. It can also be a place where opportunity is available in every corner of the city. Strengthening and institutionalizing the District’s open data culture is one of the best ways the new mayor can help the District fully leverage its assets and spread prosperity to all eight wards.
The writer is president of the Urban Institute.