En español | On the 10th floor of Tulsa City Hall — a massive glass-covered structure in the heart of downtown — a group of community members and city employees gathers to discuss issues like how often tennis courts are used and what descriptions will get the best job applicants for the city.
They are called the Urban Data Pioneers, a group of city employees and interested citizens who work to solve local problems by crunching data while munching on pizza.
Tulsa, the second-largest city in Oklahoma, is a leader in finding data-driven solutions. Engaging the community was out of sheer need. “We don't have a large budget, so we can't afford to have as many data people as we need,” says Ben Harris, data analytics manager for the city. So Urban Data Pioneers started in early 2017.
Tulsa at a Glance
- Population: 401,112
- Portion of population 50 and older: 30.3 percent
- Median home value: $160,800
- Median household income: $55,638
- Unemployment rate: 3.4 percent
In 2018, the program helped Tulsa become the only U.S. city to earn the Engaged Cities Award from the nonprofit Cities of Service. Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, who was elected in 2016, says data allows the community to test potential solutions and see which work and which don't.
"It takes partisan philosophizing out of discussions around public policy,” Bynum says.
In one recent project, the Urban Data Pioneers examined 911 call center volume. The group toured the 911 call center and analyzed data to find the optimum number of employees for various times of day, according to Andrea Pemberton, a community member who acted as project manager for the group.
Some staffing adjustments led to improvements in response time; now 76 percent of calls are answered in less than 10 seconds.
An earlier cohort examined walkability and health-related data in Tulsa, finding lower health scores reported on the city's fringes, and the best scores in midtown and downtown.
Alexander Degan is living proof. The 75-year-old takes advantage of the city's trail system along the Arkansas River and the Gathering Place, a new $465-million park that opened in 2018, creating an ideal opportunity for adults to exercise outdoors. “It's very good with the River Trails, the Gathering Place, the number of parks we have,” he says. “There's downtown accessibility."
For Harris, such positive policy changes all start with examining the data to find solutions: “It's objective reasoning.”