How Cities are Using Data to Save Lives

By Anya Kamenetz

Baltimore reached the lowest infant mortality rate the city has ever recorded in 2012. Denver Public School students saw test scores improve by 14% in reading and 23% in math. And between 2006 and 2012, low-income New Yorkers have accessed an additional $100 million in tax credits that they were previously leaving on the table.

These urban policy wins were not merely the products of creativity and inspiration. They were powered by cold, hard, data. Bridgespan, a nonprofit consultancy for philanthropists and mission-driven organizations, and the education organization America Achieves have released a big report packed with case studies that illuminate a broader trend: how data-driven decision making can lead to the most effective use of a city’s limited financial resources.

Take Baltimore. In 2009, the city launched an “outcomes budgeting” process. In a traditional city finance model, each department from Sanitation to Education gets its own budget line and fights for every item on it. There’s a built-in perverse incentive: Departments gain in size and importance when the problems they were set up to fight get worse. Instead, Baltimore funded a list of priorities like “better schools” and “safer streets.” They appointed “results teams” including insider officials, outside experts, and local residents to evaluate each outcome.


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