That time Brad Pitt was a no-show but the city changed its approach to solving problems anyway

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James Wagner, chief of the city’s Office of Performance Strategy and Innovation, speaks Friday during a meeting of Urban Data Pioneers at the Charles Hardt Operations Maintenance and Engineering Center. KEVIN CANFIELD/The Frontier

I was expecting Brad Pitt.

I got James Wagner.

Yes, I was disappointed. But Tulsans shouldn’t be. Wagner’s just the guy to play the lead in the city’s version of “Moneyball” — the 2011 hit movie about how the Oakland A’s baseball team used analytics to beat the competition.

Mayor G.T. Bynum has embraced the data-driven approach to problem-solving made famous by the movie, and he’s determined to use it at City Hall.

Wagner is his Pitt — the general manager, if you will, of the operation.

Wagner’s team is called the Urban Data Pioneers. The roster fluctuates, depending on how many city employees and folks outside of city government choose to play. Friday, more than 40 people showed up at the Charles Hardt Operations Maintenance and Engineering Center for the Pioneers’ first public meeting.

“We don’t want you to feel overwhelmed,” Wagner told the crowd.

It wasn’t. Chase Phillips, with the Indian Nations Council of Governments, stood up and explained the work he and his colleagues have been doing to figure out exactly where and why so many traffic accidents occur at the intersection of 71st Street and Mingo Avenue.

“A lot of this is unpaved territory,” he said, with seemingly no pun intended.

Then it was on to explaining the time-consuming task of going through three years of accident reports to determine where in the intersection accidents were most common. After “hot spots” had been identified, Phillips said, he and his team visited the intersection with officials from the Traffic Engineering, Police and Fire departments to be sure that the hot spots they’d identified on paper reflected the reality on the street. And they did.

Now the city is working on ways to prevent two of the most common accidents at the intersection — left-turn collisions and rear-end collisions.

It sounds simple — and far from revolutionary — but it’s not. The city isn’t just crunching data to better understand its problems. That wouldn’t be new, or news. What it’s attempting to do — what Bynum has staked his political reputation on — is create a culture at City Hall where employees not only value the Moneyball approach but understand how they can be part of implementing it.

That means employees need to understand how to identify, access and analyze data, and that’s the goal of the Urban Data Pioneers.

“The only way we are going to be able to get progress on that is if we have people who are comfortable with doing data analysis throughout the organization,” Wagner said “So our method of doing that is, instead of spending a lot of money and bringing people in to train people, we are just using real-world problems, finding the data that informs those problems, and letting them learn from each other organically.”

That approach, Wagner believes, will help build teamwork and go a long way toward tearing down the silos that sometimes rise in government settings.

“I think a lot of people in our organization don’t even know about the ability to use the resources we already have here,” he said. “It’s a cultural thing.”

Penny Macias, project manager for the Office of Performance Strategy and Innovation, said city officials are well aware that they are not experts in everything. So they welcome Phillips’ input, for example, and are urging other people who work outside of city government to lend their expertise.

So Friday there was John Dungan with Code for Tulsa, inviting everyone in the room to the group’s upcoming Hackathon.

“There is so much going on with data throughout the city, we are trying to kind of make sure we are not missing resources that are out there and keeping people connected,” Macias said.

Penny Macias, center, leads a group discussion Friday on the possible links between blight and violent crime during a meeting of the Urban Data Pioneers. Macias is project manager for the city’s Office of Performance Strategy and Innovation. KEVIN CANFIELD/The Frontier

Dungan wasn’t the only “outsider” in on the meeting Friday. Architects and community activists showed up, too. And they were put right to work. At a kick-off meeting earlier this month, the Urban Data Pioneers identified at least seven areas they wished to explore: utility billing; per capita income; pavement condition index; land use productivity; population growth; traffic crashes; and the relationship between blight and violent crime.

Friday, they began that work, meeting in small groups to discuss where to start and what data might be helpful to obtain.

Macias led the group working on the relationship between blight and violent crime.

Or is there one? Macias said that although she and her fellow Urban Data Pioneers might assume such a cause and effect exists, their charge is to follow the data where it leads them.

“It’s kind of allowing data to support those things (beliefs), and if we’re wrong, then everyone should be happy we’re wrong about it, and then we look to what else is causing it,” Macias said. “And then if you’re right, there is more to it.”

Macias’s group, which included an architect, a community activist and representatives from the Fire and Working in Neighborhoods departments, talked about what data — such as demolition, utility and police records — might be used to understand the issue.

The city has reserved meeting places for the groups inside and outside of City Hall and is using a Slack account to share information.

What the Urban Data Pioneers are not charged to do is find solutions to the problems they may or may not identify.

“We are just trying to build up the data analysis muscle, not the solutions muscle,” Wagner said. “So when the policy makers want to know the data of a problem, we can provide it.”

When the Urban Data Pioneers get together April 21, it will be to flex those muscles by sharing what they’ve learned about collecting data and what that data shows.

“We want to be teaching and doing and teaching and doing and learing and doing so not only do we come out with some kind of product at the end, but eveyone is collectively smarter,” Macias said.

The Urban Data Pioneers program is not the same as the Open Tulsa Initiative, though some of the players might overlap.

The Open Tulsa Initiative is designed to make city data available to outside groups or individuals who could then use the data to create apps or other devices to make Tulsans’ lives better. Say an app that notifies you every time a crime has occurred in your neighborhood.

Think of the Pioneers as internal agents — with a little help from the outside world – working to mine data for the good of the city. The Open Tulsa Initiative gives individuals and groups outside of City Hall access to data that can be turned into something beneficial for Tulsans.

And if, by some chance, all of this confuses you, go watch “Moneyball.” It’s a hell of a movie, whether you love data or you don’t.

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