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Former Maryland Gov. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley. (GeekWire photos)

Using data and analytics to help improve the bottom line is now common practice in the technology and business worlds. But how can city governments use those same techniques and utilization of new information to improve the lives of its constituents?

That is the theme of a two-day workshop hosted by the City of Seattle, the University of Washington, and MetroLab, a Washington D.C.-based city-university collaboration that launched as part of the White House’s Smart Cities Initiative in September 2015.

The event, called “Big Data and Human Services” and sponsored by Microsoft, Amazon, and Comcast, gathered folks in Seattle from the public and private sectors — people like UW President Ana Mari Cauce; former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire; Microsoft Chief Privacy Officer Brendon Lynch; and others — to address the opportunities and challenges that come about from the influx of data and the accompanying tools as it relates to improving the quality of cities across the U.S.

Martin O’Malley, former governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore, chairs the MetroLab advisory council and spoke at the event on Tuesday.

“There were many times when we were in city or state staff meetings where we’d ask, how do we know if what we’re doing is working?” O’Malley said. “How do we know we’re reaching the right people? How do we know we’re reaching the right people at the right time in the right places? There was a time 15 years ago where answering those questions would have taken everybody off their other jobs and taken months. But today we now know how to do this.”

The long-time politician and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate stressed that being smart about using data to drive decision-making at the city level can impact the livelihood of citizens. O’Malley hopes that city leaders can work together and share best practices to solve problems around issues like education, homelessness, and transportation; that’s the mission of MetroLab. He said he’s seen the process work first-hand with applying better diagnostic tools to help reduce juvenile homicides or the number of kids going to foster care, for example.

“This work could well save lives that you may never meet, but it’s critically important work,” O’Malley said. “It’s more important especially now in America than it has ever been. Our country is ours to fix; ours to love; and ours to make better. We can do it in all metros areas throughout the country.”

UW President Ana Mari Cauce.

Cauce, the UW president who took office in October 2015, talked about UW programs like Data Science for Social Good (DSSG) and the importance of the university working hand-in-hand with the city to use data effectively.

“It’s absolutely neccesary and important for this group to be getting together,” she said. “This is the kind of collaborative group that has the best hope of solving our most challenging problems.”

Seattle skyline and Rainier at sunsetKate Joncas, deputy mayor of Seattle, talked about data helping solve one of the city’s most pressing and complex issues: homelessness.

“We have had a lot of challenges with data,” she noted in regard to what is working and what isn’t.

Gregoire, governor of Washington from 2005 to 2013, talked about Challenge Seattle, a 2-year-old organization she’s heading up that will tackle the region’s issues with the help of government, the UW, and leaders from some of the largest and most successful local companies.

“It is founded on the simple premise of making things better,” Gregoire said of Challenge Seattle.

Former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire.

The workshop is part of Seattle’s attempt to improve how it uses and interprets data. The City signed a new open data policy last year with help from the UW and the Sunlight Foundation to help make data about everything from homelessness to local parks more easily available online.

Publicly-available government data has helped spur the formation of tech giants like Zillow, the Seattle-based online real estate company. In 2015, Zillow co-founder Rich Barton noted how the idea for Zillow’s Zestimate tool, which estimates the value of every home in the country, came about because of open data.

The event also features talks from people like Socrata CEO Kevin Merritt; Microsoft Senior Director of Citizenship & Public Affairs Joanne Harrell; City of Chicago Chief Data Officer Tom Schenk; and others. Tuesday’s agenda is focused around establishing the issues; Wednesday features more roundtable brainstorm sessions for potential solutions.

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