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Public Law Journal: Spring 2016, Vol. 39, No. 2

Weaving Together the Strands of Big Data Policy and Practice in Local Government

By Cheryl A. Leanza* and Joseph Van Eaton**

For more than two decades, beginning with the emergence in the mid-1990s of CompStat in the New York City Police Department,1 local governments have been using data, combined with accountability and follow-through, to improve public services, leading to improvements in the quality of life for their residents. But in the last few years the acceleration toward more widespread use of complex data analytic techniques has been dizzying, with new programs and futuristic analyses seemingly appearing daily around the country. From local government experiments to university-based centers2 and book-length treat-ments,3 public entities everywhere are thinking about how to better obtain and use data. The White House undertook a 90-day review of big data in 2014 underscoring that "the power of big data … will be equally transformational for states and municipalities,"4 pointing to New York City’s Office of Data Analytics and Chicago’s SmartData project5as examples of some of the most innovative uses of big data to improve service delivery.

Actors in the corporate and public interest sectors are urging government to implement systems that allow local governments to take advantage of big data analytics. Private sector firms seek to become both technology contractors to local government and also potential consumers of the newly available data. Public interest advocates, such as those supporting better services and transparent government have different, often laudable, goals. While the array of potential applications is vast, the approach to utilizing these techniques has not always been systematic. In particular, those advocating for big data’s use in one context are not always aware of countervailing considerations in another context, and often are not accustomed to considering these issues from the perspective of local governments.

Locally elected officials are eager … to reap the advantages [of] new technological tools.

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