Innovation Saves Chattanooga

March 30, 2015 10:06 am PDT | Open Data

Outdoor Magazine got it right when it called Chattanooga, “Best Town Ever.” It’s a thriving civic masterpiece, wrapped in natural beauty. At the Socrata Customer Summit, Andy Berke, mayor of the mid-sized Tennessee town, attributes its success to people, “who have a core value of open government, open data.”

“We Saw Our City Die”

Chattanooga wasn’t always drawing businesses and tourists, though. Berke shows a 1969 slide of Chattanooga looking a sickly brown. “Famously, Walter Cronkite called Chattanooga, ‘the dirtiest city in America,’” Berke reflects. The air was full of industrial pollution, which settled onto streets and buildings. “We saw our city die,” Berke states. The population dropped, as people escaped for a better life somewhere else. 

After industry in Chattanooga collapsed, the air got cleaner, but the economic base was gone. Berke tells his audience leaders began anew with, “a visioning process with people from all over the community.” 

Rebirth Through Civic Engagement

The vision gave rise to community-based planning and an eye for tourism. An aquarium, waterfront parks, and other assets followed, “to bring energy and vibrancy to the city,” explains Berke.

Berke carried that spirit of innovation right into the mayor’s office, he shares. He began by eliminating four departments, placing their core functions into three new departments. He shares the example of taking Transportation out of a submerged existence in Public Works, transforming it into its own department to get, “people thinking about how we move our economy forward,” including how to connect people to each other and businesses to marketplaces. 

How You Budget Matters 

A second big change was Berke’s switch to Budgeting for Outcomes (BFO), also called zero-based budgeting. Berke defines this as asking tough questions around what’s needed, what’s not needed, and what’s still needed but being done badly. “We are completely focused on making sure that our budget outlines our priorities clearly,” setting a yearly roadmap to propel priorities.

ChattaData

In partnership with Socrata, the city developed ChattaData, a showcase of an open data portal. The online performance dashboard makes it possible for citizens to understand, evaluate, and participate in city government, 24/7.

Berke outlines the value of having highly visible, openly shared information. “When you set a bold goal, then people buy in” because they understand you cannot succeed without their help, “and you can truly bring people together.” He offers the example of Chattanooga’s commitment to reducing violent crime by 20 percent. The goal, the 2015 projects funded to achieve it, and their progress, are all displayed on Chattadata for citizens and city workers to assess together. “Linking up what we’re doing with our goals with the actual numbers. That’s a terrific part of ChattaData,” he reflects. 

Town Library for the 21st Century

Chattadata also helped transform the library – phenomenally. The National Journal called it “the library of the future.” But ten years ago, Berke contends, city leaders “would have said the library is dead.” Now, it’s a wellspring of the town’s tech economy. 

A town library is an open resource, Berke points out, since, “anybody can walk in every day and use whatever they want.” City tech departments, he believes, aren’t always that way. With 300 datasets hosted and more to come, “we also want to incorporate datasets from other orgs; the library is a friendly way to do that.” Today, an entire library floor is dedicated to open data, and developers and innovators flock there, “talking about next phases of everything,” Berke enthuses. The library has become a town hub for creativity.

Open Data Equals Survival

Chattanooga embraces open data, “with purpose and reason – to improve the lives of our constituents each and every day,” Berke explains. He also believes this translates to the role of mid-sized towns in future economic models.

“Anything that can be done by computers or robots, in the future will be done by computers or robots,” Berke asserts. “What we have to add as human beings is creativity and understanding and innovation.” Innovation is the ticket for any mid-sized municipality to survive in the coming century, he believes.

Connect Everybody

Another major piece of Chattanooga’s innovation is, “the fastest, cheapest, most pervasive Internet in the Western Hemisphere,” Berke declares. The town boasts, “600 square miles of fiber optics running to every home and business in the entire city.” Berke believes the connectivity has been, “a tremendous game-changer in the way we think about ourselves,” as on the front lines of the economy: “a mid-sized Southern city with a tech boom.”

But Berke acknowledges the availability of technology, “doesn’t solve every problem,” and that some constituents regularly face poverty, income inequality, and crime. Open data, Berke believes, will help Chattanoogans discover solutions, and truly change people’s lives.