Buffalo's Data-Driven COVID-19 Strategy
As public officials across the country consider when and how to open their economies, the city of Buffalo, New York, is taking a data-driven approach to inform how it flattens the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Buffalo, the second largest city in the state of New York, confirmed its first coronavirus case in early March. By March 16, the city had closed its government offices, shifted its employees to work from home, and it began responding to a stream of questions from the public as the number of confirmed cases multiplied. As residents looked for answers about trash pick-up, essential businesses, and how to shelter-in-place, the need became apparent for a central data hub — both for the public to access key information and for internal staff to inform and measure their COVID-19 strategy.
Setting the Facts Straight
Among the many challenges organizations across the world have faced during the pandemic, one has stayed consistent: getting access to reliable information. On the public front, communicating with transparency can quell misinformation and fear. Internally, it’s a crucial component to conducting analyses, informing stakeholders, and making effective decisions.
“One of the issues the city has faced, health care providers have faced, and emergency first responders have faced, is misinformation that has been presented as fact,” said Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown. “It’s critically important that people get good information, accurate information, so they can make the proper health care decisions for themselves that have an impact not only on their health, but their family members and their friends.”
A Data Platform to Respond to COVID-19
Buffalo wanted to launch a two-pronged approach for its response strategy to COVID-19. One aspect would provide a public hub for their coronavirus response resources, and the second would provide a way to connect and access the data needed to create and share internal reports and dashboards to commissioners and executive-level staff for use in decision-making.
Kirk McLean, director of open data and chief of staff to the city’s CIO, began looking for a platform that could check all the boxes. He and his team selected Tyler’s Socrata solution for the job. In April, the city launched Socrata Connected Government Cloud (SCGC), Tyler’s enterprise scale, FedRAMP-certified, internal data-sharing platform, and Tyler’s Socrata open data solution.
SCGC, which is purpose-built for government data and workflow, enables staff to have self-service access to the data they need in a simple Google-like interface, and open data allows the city to easily share their data findings with the public.
“Especially during a pandemic, you want to make sure people have the right information and the right resources,” McLean said. “You want something that’s centralized, easy to navigate, easy to use, and mobile-responsive. Socrata was a real opportunity and a good match for what the city was looking for in a centralized resource for our COVID-19 response.”
It’s critically important that people get good information, accurate information, so they can make the proper health care decisions for themselves that have an impact not only on their health, but their family members and their friends.
The city of Buffalo, New York, launched a COVID-19 resource site to connect the public with accurate and trustworthy information on the outbreak.
Socrata supports the team with the ability to ingress, analyze, and securely share data without needing to rely on a network connection.
The open data component functions as a one-stop shop to share information with residents. The public can access the most up-to-date coronavirus information in Buffalo on a variety of resources:
- Pertinent health and mental health information
- Support for older residents
- Assistance for small businesses and people looking for work
- Information on homeless shelters
- Free meals for Buffalo residents
- Relevant data and statistics
- Volunteer opportunities
- Virtual cultural and child-friendly activities
- An in memoriam tribute to the local lives lost in the pandemic
Early results of the data hub are positive. In its first month, the site has logged more than 16,000 page views.
“Having easily consumable data and visualizations can go a long way in helping people understand what’s happening,” McLean said.
Socrata provides customizable internal permissions and sharing capabilities so the city’s data team can handle the scripting and provide their colleagues with the data they need to generate their own insights.
Now, the team can collaborate in real time and involve content experts in the analysis process. They’ve put this to use in risk analysis for volunteer deployment such as mapping vulnerable populations with higher rates of preexisting conditions, concentrations of food-insecure seniors or seniors living alone, where to find free mask or meal distribution centers, track 311 calls, and target messaging to improve response rates for the 2020 U.S. Census.
The ROI is great. Establishing a self-service data hub is a positive step in data governance for the city and is everything our team has been hoping for.
open data and analytics project manager, city of Buffalo, New York
Leveling the Playing Field
Buffalo has a lean, but mighty, data team. The team regularly built dashboards and provided analyses with other tools to assist executives in data-informed decision-making, and, after implementing the Socrata data platform, the data team can equip both analytical and less technically-savvy staffers with the tools to conduct deeper levels of analysis.
Dana Glantz, Buffalo’s open data and analytics project manager, said Socrata “has leveled the playing field.”
Socrata creates a centralized pool of data to easily and securely pull and use. This, Glantz said, allows for deeper cross-disciplinary and cross-system analysis without taxing the existing environment.
Tyler’s Socrata Connected Government Cloud offers a Google-like search capability to quickly find and access your data, as visible in this example from a Socrata demo domain.
“We had to move everyone to work from home quickly following the governor’s orders, so we didn’t have all of the tech infrastructure squared away going into the lockdown,” Glantz said. “This ability to ingress, analyze, and securely share data without needing to rely on a network connection has been critical in the interim, and I think will continue to prove beneficial with more time to deploy.”
It’s also given the team the ability to take a deeper dive into third-party data not published on the open data portal, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Johns Hopkins University.
“The ROI is great,” Glantz said. “Establishing a self-service data hub is a positive step in data governance for the city and is everything our team has been hoping for.”
As governments across the U.S. consider how and when to reopen their communities, quality data analysis is critical to put policies in place that keep people safe.
“When people look at the case data — the number of positive cases and deaths — that information really speaks for itself,” McLean said. “All governments are taking measures right now to try to reduce the number of cases and reduce the spread and having access to information that shows what’s actually happening on the ground is a powerful way to dispel any myths about the severity of the crisis.”