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We know that air pollution affects health, urban design can influence social interaction, and traffic can alter our mood. Data can help us see how these different elements interact and influence policy. But in this era of infinite data, it’s impossible for humans to uncover all the potential correlations with red string and thumbtacks on a wall.

AI, with its power to analyze vast amounts of data, is changing what’s possible. Scottsdale, Arizona, USA, for example, collects a lot of data. Brent Stockwell, assistant city manager, said the city’s data scientist found that the city receives more noise complaints when it’s loud on Wednesdays than any other day of the week, even though weekends were louder.

The data scientist observed that residents may be less tolerant of higher volumes during the week, which tracks with common logic. With data confirming the connection between expectations and noise level, the city is working to draft updates to its entertainment-related sound ordinance requiring businesses to have lower sound levels on weekdays.

This is one small example of using data connections. Now imagine this analysis times 100. There are galaxies of data floating around online. AI has the power to analyze that data and illuminate correlations that humans might miss.

“By analyzing data using AI, you could do analysis much more quickly,” Stockwell says. “People tend to be limited by their own biases and perceptions rather than really trying to look for the significant and important patterns. There may be something there that’s not readily apparent to a person.”

Decision-making in Local Government Today

Right now, most local governments do not use data to inform decision-making as much as they could. “Too frequently we’re using human intelligence to say, ‘Here’s what we think the issues are,’ rather than a data-informed, data-focused approach, and looking at the patterns,” Stockwell says.

According to David Swindell, director of the Center for Urban Innovation at Arizona State University, about 40% of cities collect data. Yet, only a fraction use it for performance management. The government data that does exist is collecting digital dust.

As a result, Stockwell says there may be too much reliance on brainstorming in local government rather than looking at data and trends. Creative thinking is important, but governments often spend too much time, money, and energy on items that people perceive to be a problem, rather than actual problems that might benefit their communities more in the long run.

For governments that don’t use data at all, lack of resources, funding, time, staff know-how, or desire to implement new processes can all contribute to the lack of a data-driven culture.

How Well-Trained AI Can Help

AI can quickly present accurate facts up front to streamline the decision-making process. “As local government professionals, we’re decision support. We’re helping other people to make decisions, and we should use the tools available to us to do that,” Stockwell says.

It’s important to note that most creative AI tools, such as Open AI, often generate biased and misleading information. The tech will happily give you a five-step guide to levitation or crank out a report on egg-laying trees. That’s because ChatGPT is working off everything on the internet, which is teeming with false information.

However, with the right training, an AI tool can be taught to report reliable information. So, for an AI analyst to work, cities need high-quality data to begin with.

Luckily, good data and well-behaved AI are out there. For example, Polco, a data analytics, AI, and community engagement company, built an AI analyst, Polly. Polly is trained on the company’s large databases of resident opinion and government performance metrics curated by data science experts into one AI system. Designed specifically for the public sector, Polly is limited to working off of these databases, it presents verifiable statistics, and it cites its sources, making its analysis much more reliable.

Tools like this reduce the time and money required for data collection and analysis. Because it’s easily accessible and user-friendly, AI like Polly gives all governments large-scale community data insights for maximally informed decision-making.

In this way, AI can equip local government decision-makers with the data analysis they’ve always dreamed of. Instead of wasting time brainstorming or arguing over priorities, government leaders can focus their attention and energy on where it will make the most difference in their community.

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JESSIE O’BRIEN is copywriter at Polco, leaders in government performance analytics, AI, and community engagement. She publishes the company’s newsletter, The Civil Review and co-hosts The Civil Review Podcast. Local governments can save months of time on data collection, analysis, and reporting with Polly, Polco’s AI analyst. Sign up for a Polco account to try Polly for free.


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