Elizabeth Crowe works a block from City Hall in a hard-to-find corner of Cleveland government. She’s the director of an office that is heavy on syllables: the Office of Urban Analytics and Innovation, or Urban AI for short.
In the past, council members have wondered aloud about what the office – previously known as the Office of Quality Control and Performance Management – even does.
Despite the obscurity, it’s Crowe’s job to turn Mayor Justin Bibb’s “modern and responsive City Hall” from campaign rhetoric into reality. She’ll have to do so as council grows more skeptical of the year-old administration’s promises.
Urban AI begins 2023 with a new charge. Crowe wants to help city departments make sense of the data they collect – the potholes filled, the trees trimmed, the streets plowed. From there, department heads can figure out how to deliver services more efficiently.
Take Cleveland’s yearly battle with grass in parks and on city-owned vacant lots, for instance. Every summer, residents complain about the tall grass that outpaces the city’s mowing crews.
“We know how many mowers we have,” she told Signal Cleveland. “We know how many people are mowing, and we know how long it takes them to mow a lawn. We also know that a certain percentage of those mowers are going to go down at any point in time.”
With those numbers, Department of Public Works supervisors ought to have a way to compute whether they are behind on their mowing goals, she said. If they are, the department can adjust.
Eventually, Urban AI could share Cleveland’s data with the wider world in an online dashboard.
But most of that work lies ahead. Never mind a public repository of data: The office doesn’t even have its own web page yet. Crowe said that Urban AI will establish an online presence when Cleveland launches a redesigned website.
“I think this office is going to keep evolving,” she said. “We’re very much at the beginning, forming the team, forming our work. I think the city is going to keep evolving, especially as we start to build out data literacy, data trust across the enterprise.”
Crowe and the office face a more immediate challenge in the coming weeks, when City Council begins its February hearings on the 2023 budget. She’ll have to defend the office’s work to a council eager for results.
A small office with a new face
During budget hearings last year, Ward 8 Council Member Michael Polensek suggested that, if the administration can’t justify the $1.6 million office’s existence, council should take it over.
“Someone’s got to explain to me why I would vote, as a member of this Finance Committee, to keep this department,” he said in 2022. “Why I would vote to keep this when I don’t know what they do.”
Mayor Justin Bibb and his aides did not put the office on the butcher’s block. Instead, they embraced the office, hired Crowe as its director and gave it a buzzy new name. Crowe joined the administration last August from the nonprofit startup incubator JumpStart, where she worked in data analysis.
She has a doctorate in public administration and policy from American University. She also did her undergraduate and master’s studies at American, where she and Bibb were executive board members of a pre-law fraternity together. Crowe told Signal Cleveland that Bibb did not know she had applied to direct the office until she was well into interviews.
Urban AI began its existence as CitiStat, which was modeled after the performance management system pioneered by Martin O’Malley, the Baltimore mayor who would later become governor of Maryland.
Crowe keeps O’Malley’s how-to book, “Smart Governing,” on her shelf. Last October, the former governor met with Bibb, according to the mayor’s public calendar. O’Malley also dropped by the Urban AI office to say hello, Crowe said.
After voters passed an income tax increase in 2016, Mayor Frank Jackson expanded the CitiStat operation to the Office of Quality Control and Performance Management.
Including Crowe, Urban AI has 12 employees and is budgeted for 15. Bibb’s forthcoming budget proposal would fund 14 positions, she said. Two of those workers are quality control inspectors. Their job is to roam the East and West Sides verifying that the city has responded to resident service complaints.
Urban AI does not have enough people to monitor all the data that the city collects, Crowe said. But it can act as a “center for excellence,” helping departments improve how they compile, share and use numbers, she said.
“We’ll never be the crime analyst, we’ll never be the epidemiologist. Public Works desperately needs some data people,” she said. “But we can level up those teams, and we can give them the tools and the training that they can then manage those things on an ongoing basis.”
Crowe is also overseeing the Bibb administration’s overhaul of 311, the resident complaint line. The administration’s goal is to give residents a way to report and track their complaints online. The city is close to picking a winning consultant out of a dozen applicants, she said.
‘Time to deliver’
But when city services break down – for instance, when it takes an interminable amount of time to replace broken trash and recycling bins – residents often call their council members, not 311. And council has pushed the office and its new leadership to start making a difference in service delivery.
Polensek, who long badgered Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration to step up resident services, hasn’t let up now that Bibb is at the helm. He is waiting and watching to see whether Urban AI can prove its worth.
“They said what we wanted to hear,” Polensek told Signal Cleveland. “The proof will be in the pudding.”
Not long ago, calls began coming into the Collinwood council member’s office asking about trash collection for the week of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he said. Polensek said he dialed City Hall’s main number himself, only to wait on the line for 15 minutes and receive no callback.
For the 45-year council member, not returning a call is a high offense.
“In my ward, I got a high percentage of folks that don’t text, don’t tweet and don’t have email,” he said. “They use the phone.”
The city plans to hire a service to handle after-hours 311 calls.
Polensek wants Urban AI to dig into the Department of Building and Housing, which he called dysfunctional. It takes too long to get properties inspected and to bring housing code violations through court, he said. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s housing stock is deteriorating.
Crowe said Urban AI is kicking off a deep dive into Accela, the software the city uses to collect information on building permits and code violations. Cleveland maintains a citizen access site for housing records, but it is clunky and difficult to navigate.
“You can call it whatever you want, analytical this, analytical that,” Polensek said, adding – in a salty turn of phrase – that he did not give a hoot what the office was called.
Whatever its name, the office needs to find out what is working, and what is not, in the delivery of basic city services, he said. Bibb has been mayor for a year; it is now too late to blame breakdowns on the past mayor, he said.
“The honeymoon is over,” Polensek said. “It’s time to deliver.”