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Data-Driven Government in the Context of Increasing Environmental Risk.

February 18, 2020
Susanna Pho, CFM

The Dilemma of Data in Government

For more than a decade the notion of driving local government efficiency and innovation by leveraging data has proved to be both a ubiquitous and hard-to-attain call-to-action. "Data-driven government" has become a colloquialism in many circles — we use it to address the burdens of red tape and outdated city systems. As a result, quite a few municipalities have invested significantly in new technologies and advanced datasets to achieve this indistinct ideal.

While a lot of progress has been made to better understand how data can inform government processes, buying access to complex models or fancy dashboards is only half of the data battle. The second half is much harder: local governments must also have the capacity to meaningfully integrate additional data and tools into existing systems and workflows. A lack of understanding about integration or usage can quickly turn promising digital products into ineffective technology. When data is hard to parse or software is hard to operate, few cities use them (even when they pay a lot for the privilege).

Environmental Risk Compounds Data Challenges

Bridging data and government workflows is even more complicated for municipalities seeking to adapt to climate and environmental risk. Communities dealing with issues like accelerating fire frequency or increased flooding face a multitude of compounded problems:

  1. Adaptation is expensive and data-based claims are often required to secure additional funding for projects.
  2. Adaptation actions often span departments, which means that cross-departmental buy in and collaboration are both necessary to get things done.
  3. There are gaps in available data. Especially in the world of environmental hazards, modeled data is often used to decide how resources are invested. But, in general, we have a very limited understanding of how hazard scenarios might impact our built reality. Cities sometimes have access to this data, but it's often relegated to filing cabinets and difficult to aggregate.
  4. Expertise can be hard to come by, and is often purchased from outside sources (which means that local governments aren't empowered to manage risk internally).
  5. Staffing is difficult. Many municipalities are significantly understaffed and have high turnover rates. This means that there are very few people doing a lot of work and it is difficult to build long-term institutional knowledge.

At Forerunner, we work at the intersection of these big, seemingly intractable, problems and the on-the-ground limitations of those working to address them. In this murky space, we learn a lot from our users — a diverse group that includes floodplain managers, planners, building officials, construction code officials, and hazard mitigation planners. Across these roles, we often hear two core requests: governments need better/more flexible data, and they need tools to help them deploy it.

Capacity-building Software

In response, we're building a set of software tools to increase the capacity of local governments to address adaptation challenges locally — so that our customers can mobilize data they already have to better understand environmental risk and communicate it to their residents. This has multiple benefit:

  1. Our customers can plan better for the future. Better data that can be mobilized without expert knowledge enables government decision-makers across departments have more informed conversations about investment options.
  2. It's easier to enforce development compliance. We help communities build a better understanding of [per-property risk by analyzing permit data](link to something). Because this data represents as-built realities, it can be used to enforce regulations meant to keep residents safer.
  3. Users are empowered with more knowledge, which they can then communicate to their constituents. More accessible data means that planners can be informed when giving advice to residents.
Forerunner's Mapping Feature

Forerunner is also built to be easy-to-use, so that we add value for our users (instead of costing them valuable hours in training time). For many of our customers, we offer an alternative to hiring a full-time employee or a consultant (both of which can be much more costly than a software subscription). We also bridge the knowledge gap between incoming and outgoing employees — so that municipalities have data continuity over time.

Our goal is to make local governments smarter in the long-term, more efficient in the short-term, and more resilient overall. We've found that the desire to enable adaptation action at scale is increasing, as is the need to better address the utility of additional data in government decision-making. As stated by Chad Berginnis, the Executive Director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, "good data and decision making tools will be critical for coastal communities striving to be resilient in the face of accelerating sea level rise and climate change."  If you're interested in learning more about what we're up to or sharing your experience with harnessing data for adaptation, we would love to hear from you. Contact us here or at for a chat! We also send a monthly newsletter that brings together news from around the web and our blog. You can subscribe to it here.

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