What happens when the data is inconvenient? Tulsa’s struggle with meaningful implementation

by Staff Writer Lindsay Myers

Under Mayor Dewey Bartlett, Tulsa adopted the Open and Accessible Data Resolution in 2013. This set the stage to make data transparency a city-wide priority. Three years later, the citizens of Tulsa were promised four years of policy decisions based on data and facts. To make this happen, city officials would need to engage community voices with local experts. What was in Tulsa’s best interest would not just be a matter of opinion but would be backed by data and evidence. Most of the time, the city kept its promise. However, it appears that the City is only comfortable using and sharing data when it is comfortable and convenient. 

The first cohort of the Urban Data Pioneers (UDP) program launched in Spring 2017. In this program, cohorts made up of city employees and community members work together to “identify a problem, ask questions, analyze data” and present their results, which are posted publicly on the City of Tulsa website (with a few exceptions). However, not all groups include the data they used in their analysis as part of their recommendations. While this program’s goal emphasizes data, it is unclear how the City ensures clear methods and statistical analysis are taking place. Some of the presentations did not include what type of data was used, how it was collected, and how it was analyzed. Without this information, the identification of problems and recommended solutions read as opinion. It is unclear whether groups identify problems on their own or whether a topic is assigned to them. 

To be truly community-engaged, however, it is crucial that groups identify issues that are important to the community. Cohorts have worked on projects addressing crime mapping, population growth and 311/911 call center efficiency. A couple of the reports lack presentation links altogether, making them entirely inaccessible to the community. One such report addresses eviction rates and, based on the title, “Rising Eviction Rates: The Path to Stabilizing Tulsa’s Tenancy Crisis,” the report appears to blame evictions entirely on tenants. Eviction is a lot more complicated than that and often is the result of a systemic, inequitable housing issue. Community members who might be interested in learning more about these reports would likely care to know about the cohort members, what community members were engaged in said project and what experts were part of the analysis. Apart from the names of group members on a fraction of the reports, this information is largely unavailable. While this program appears well-intentioned and might increase the efficiency of city procedures, UDP’s stated value of transparency is lacking, making it impossible for average citizens to review progress.

Other attempts to increase government efficiency through the use of data seem to fall under the Office of Performance Strategy and Innovation, which oversees data governance for the City. Many of the listed programs appear to align with what you would typically expect of a city government. This includes TulStat, which aimed to be a regularly scheduled forum for citizens to engage in discussions on set topics, such as community policing and city budgets. The program’s website has not been updated since 2018. The Civic Innovation Fellowship was a project through which six Tulsans would collaborate on problem-solving a municipal issue for six months. The first group of fellows were assigned to work on “dilapidated or unmaintained properties” in 2018. The fellows proposed solutions that would make it easier for code violators to become aware of any such issue with maintaining their property, such as through text messages and courtesy notices that would clarify city codes. This project appears to be the inspiration for UDP’s “Nuisance Abatement” presentation from its most recent cohort which would utilize image data to quickly identify code violations and text property owners. Rather than skipping straight to citations, volunteers would work with property owners to resolve any violations. The city’s website for the fellowship includes a call for 2019 applications. However, it is unclear whether 2019 fellows were selected. 

Then, the pandemic happened and the data that used to be so precious to us was disregarded by Mayor Bynum when the community needed it most. The first COVID-19 case in Tulsa was confirmed on March 6. Ahead of this news, the Tulsa Health Department announced its close monitoring of the coronavirus as early as March 3. When Dr. Bruce Dart, Tulsa Health Department director, urged a delay of President Trump’s Tulsa rally in order to limit community spread, Mayor Bynum chose avoidance. A mayor who ignores the advice of experts cannot claim to be data-driven. 

Generally, data is more accessible now than it was four years ago with tools such as the Open Data Portal and the Equality Indicators report. Data transparency is an important first step in creating a more equitable city. However, it must be followed by action. It is not enough to just show-and-tell facts and figures. We must ask what the data is telling us and respond accordingly. It is now clear that data will be used only if the mayor can remain comfortable. He has no problem using data to make the government more efficient.  Unfortunately, when it comes to the health of his citizens, he would rather not be inconvenienced. Data isn’t always convenient or kind. However, that is what makes it all the more vital in times of uncertainty.

Photo credit: Joseph Rushmore

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