Connecting state and local government leaders

Syracuse Mayor Discusses How Tech and Data Intersect on Her City’s Streets

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner Hans Pennink / AP Photo


Connecting state and local government leaders

As she prepares to leave office, Stephanie Miner looks back on an innovation-focused municipal agenda and where cities are going in the Trump era.

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner turned her city’s attention toward innovation, specifically around infrastructure, since taking office in 2010.

Miner, who second term as mayor ends this year, credits the city’s midsize, which allows for the implementation and near-immediate measurement of creative policies to gauge their success.

From financial empowerment to affordable housing to the testing of new, low-cost sensor technology for mapping street quality, Syracuse’s municipal government embraced an innovation-focused agenda under Miner’s leadership.

Route Fifty sat down with Miner last week after her panel at the The Volcker Alliance’s Rethinking Effective Government symposium to chat about the future of city government.

Route Fifty: How do you see technology changing the way city government operates?

Mayor Stephanie Miner: It’s making us more responsive. It’s helping us measure the effectiveness of our policies. It’s forcing us to change the way we think about the services that we deliver.

The major disruptor is the fact that the traditional media is changing. If you think of effective governance as a stool, one of the legs of that stool was a newspaper that would bring everyone together. You knew what the facts were, they would have vetted them. You would talk about effectiveness if you were good, or you would have to explain why you were really bad. As local media is changing, becoming smaller than it ever has been, it is hard to be a change agent. It’s hard to sell transformative policies because you don’t have any third-party validators.

You have to figure out different ways to communicate with your constituents. When you’re a city, you have to communicate with the 21-year-old college student and the 91-year-old senior citizen and everybody in between.

Route Fifty: You talked about how many municipal governments have missed the tech and data revolution. What are some of the ways cities can catch up?

Miner: The easiest way is to implement programs which help us with our accounting control, and so you can have programs that take care of your employee benefits, people’s hours, the paychecks that they get and overtime. You have an almost automatic check and balance in there, so you don’t have to hire as many accountants because you have this automated function.

It goes from that level, which is using technology and programs that already exist to make sure you are not wasting or that there’s any fraud occurring with people’s tax dollars, to what I would consider the other end of the spectrum, using forward technology like sensors to measure the strength and quality of your infrastructure and have predictive models that will show you where your infrastructure is likely to break down.

In Syracuse, we worked with the University of Chicago Data Science for Social Good, a group of data professionals, and came up with an algorithm that would predict where our water mains would break. We could look at that and say, “Well, this water main may break, but nobody’s going to be impacted because it’s in an abandoned industrial area. This water main is giving water to a university hospital, so we better get on that break. It allows you to make better decisions because you have better information and do it in a way that you’re not always reacting to it.

Route Fifty: We’ve covered Syracuse’s use of the Street Quality Identification Device (SQUID). How is that pilot coming along, and how do you see the federal and state governments supporting projects like it moving forward?

Part of what I have talked to members of Congress about is, when there is money made available for infrastructure, to have the definition of what is able to be funded be broad enough to include technology—so it’s not just cutting into asphalt and laying pipe. You can use it to buy data, sensors or computer programs.

I’ve talked to Congress people about SQUID and showed them what it is allowing us to do. Part of this is, when money does become available for roads, then you have a map there with data that say: “These roads are the worst. These roads are the best.” And it’s also allowed us to try new and different treatments for the asphalt to see what works and if we can extend the life of the roads before we have to do a complete mill and pave. Can you have micro-paving treatment on a road and have it have an extra five or 10 years before you have to do a mill and pave? We can treat that road, continually use SQUID data and look at it after a rough winter, a humid summer. In all cities, the environmental issues you have on infrastructure are important. Obviously in Syracuse it gets cold, and we want to make sure our treatment and our infrastructure can be resilient enough to deal with that.

Route Fifty: Do you find the Trump administration’s assertion that allocating $200 billion for infrastructure over the next decade will generate $1 trillion in overall investment to be realistic?

Miner: It could, but the P3s will be naturally attracted to infrastructure that produces revenue: airports, toll roads and toll bridges. Where it’s easier to see a return on investment, that’s why you would invest there.

But what about infrastructure that does not produce the highest rate of returns? What about replacing water mains in Flint, Michigan? Is a P3 ever going to take on that problem? Or what about poor communities in urban and rural areas? If a P3 gets involved they’re going to want, by definition, a return on investment, which means they’re going to want to charge a higher rate. And what about people who can’t afford that? Are we going to, as a society, say only rich people are going to have access to clean water?

Route Fifty: What do you make of the state of federal and city government relations currently?

Miner: Look, I think the Trump administration has been actively antagonistic toward urban interests. There’s no infrastructure bill. Their effort to decimate Obamacare impacts the people who live in cities. There is a significant number of poor people who live in cities but also small business entrepreneurs who take advantage of Obamacare who gravitate toward cities. They’re getting victimized by Trump policies.

Talking about social policies, immigrants by and large live in cities. Trump’s vitriolic, disgraceful rhetoric toward immigrants has been disruptive.

I think that the Trump presidency has been very open about the fact that they are antithetical to good governance and good public policy, and their raison d’être, their reason for being, is to cut taxes for wealthy people.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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