Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Can Meat-and-Potatoes “Big Data” Help Detroit?

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

Walter Isaacson (R) interviews Steve Case (L). Click or tap the above image to download a .pdf of this article.This morning I attended the conference called The Innovation Economy: Navigating the Information Revolution. Sponsored by the Aspen Institute, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and Intel, the tagline expressed lofty ambitions:

A discussion on data innovation, US economic and technological growth, and American society.

One of the first speakers, interviewed by Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute, was Steve Case. He stressed the importance of entrepreneurship and catalyzing a “second revolution” and was quoted by Matt McFarland of the Washington Post as warning against the US “turning into Detroit” by the stifling of entrepreneurship.

I have a soft spot in my heart for Detroit. My wife grew up in nearby Farmington Michigan. We still have family and friends there. We’ve watched Detroit deteriorate over the past several decades. Case’s apocalyptic warnings hit home.

By chance while reviewing my notes from this morning’s meeting I came across a blog post from the Knight Foundation titled How public media can help with the recovery of Detroit. It describes several cooperative efforts funded by the Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and others to promote collaboration among public and private media in and around Detroit.

What will the results of promoting such public media efforts be? That’s not clear. What struck me about the story was its comparison of Detroit’s current condition to New Jersey following hurricane Sandy and New Orleans following Katrina.

Detroit’s decline, used by Case as an analogy for what we want to avoid in the U.S., happened over a longer time. But the current financial and infrastructure and desolation in Detroit are comparable.

What also got my attention later in the morning’s conference was the straightforward description by Michael Flowers, Chief Analytics Officer in New York City which, under the auspices of Mayor Bloomberg, has been a leader in promoting the civic use of “big data” and data analytics to make public services more effective and accountable.

Flowers talked less about the “policy” and “strategic” implications of improved data access and analytics and more about better data and the practical impacts on public safety, public health, and taking out the trash. According to Flowers and another speaker, Esther Dyson, people more likely to approve the sharing of their personal and organizational data if they see an actual benefit of doing so. These include better healthcare, better education — and better trash collection.

What has this got to do with Detroit?

Just as foundations such as Knight and Ford are supporting collaboration among journalistic entities in around Detroit, perhaps there should also be similar efforts to foster better data sharing and data access. Promoting civic “big data” efforts need not just focus on promoting small business and middle-class entrepreneurship but also on supporting the basic services that need to be restored in Detroit such as public safety, public health, street repair, and trash collection.

The point is that “big data” and “open data” don’t just have a role play in supporting strategic and long-term goals. They also have more immediate short-term “meat-and-potatoes” applications.

Environments such as Detroit where infrastructure improvements and basic services are desperately needed might also be more welcoming to imaginative or disruptive solutions to service delivery challenges than more comfortable organizations where political interests are entrenched and resistant to change and innovation.

Necessity is the “mother of invention” and a place like Detroit needs all the invention it can get. Perhaps better and more disruptive access to basic data that drives service improvement could be an important element in Detroit’s recovery.

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Copyright © 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Dr. McDonald is an independent project management consultant based in Alexandria, Virginia. He has worked throughout the U.S. and in Europe, Egypt, and China. His clients have included the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency, the World Bank, AIG, ASHP, and  the National Library of Medicine. In addition to consulting company ownership and management his experience includes database publishing and data transformation, integration of large systems, corporate technology strategy, social media adoption, statistical research, and IT cost analysis. His web site is located at and his email addres is 


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