Jackson, Mississippi Uses Data to Manage Millions in Infrastructure Improvements

Customer: Jackson, MS

Jackson, Mississippi is a city where not just once, but twice, school buses have gotten stuck in sinkholes.

These are the types of headlines and photos no local government wants, but for this capital city these news stories are an almost typical occurrence: not just some, but many, cars have been stuck in sinkholes. Nearly half of the city’s bridges are in dire need of repairs. (One bridge was closed to vehicles after an inspection revealed structural problems — just months later, it collapsed.) Draining and flooding issues are rampant, as is blight.

Like many American cities, Jackson’s aging infrastructure requires expensive, significant updates. An assessment put the price tag for improvements between $750 million and $1 billion. And that’s just one part of Jackson’s immense and essential infrastructure costs. A 2013 consent decree from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) requires the city to fix its wastewater practices, at an estimated cost of $400 million dollars. With mounting problems, Jackson has had one thing on its side. In 2014, citizens voted in a 1 percent sales tax reserved for capital projects.

Still, how can a city faced with such pervasive infrastructure needs create and enact a plan that adapts to changing priorities and funding levels? For Jackson, the answer was data. “We decided that data was going to drive everything we do with infrastructure and repair,” says Justin Bruce, Director of Innovation and Performance for the city of Jackson.

Data Makes the Invisible Visible

To date, the 1 percent sales tax, along with a federal grant from the US Department of Transportation, has created a fund with more than $49 million. The city’s plans for those funds can be seen in The Bold New Infrastructure Improvement Plan, created under the leadership of Mayor Tony Yarber, with input from the community, stakeholders, and experts. “Data helped us create both long- and short-term plans,” says Yarber.

Many of Jackson’s problems, like potholes or other road damage, are readily apparent to the city’s 175,000 residents. But the real infrastructure issues lurk below the city, namely sewage and water pipes that are more than a 100 years old. “People want to talk about how long it’s been since the streets were repaved, but the reality is that if we don’t fix the pipes, the streets won’t exist in seven years,” says Bruce.

Nearly as important as Jackson’s infrastructure work was transparent communication and education about initiatives and projects so citizens could be engaged in the process. Otherwise, both residents and local media might fail to see the connection between old pipes and crumbling roads, and between wastewater treatment repairs and access to clean drinking water. “We had to help people understand that what was running on the news was simply a manifestation of issues that had been going on for a very long time,” says Bruce.

With greater visibility in mind, Jackson teamed up with Socrata to share information on projects, spending, and progress, and make the often unexciting and invisible work of infrastructure repair visible and meaningful to residents.

The following are sites filled with data, visualizations, plans, and explanations designed to keep Jackson’s residents, officials, and the media informed.

JackStats: The city’s performance measurement site puts progress on goals front-and-center. This “Mayor’s Dashboard” is a way for citizens to see how the city is performing against goals. The site offers tremendous value to internal staffers, as well, who now have a common source of updated information.

Jackson at Work: Updated monthly, this site offers information on the costs of projects, as well as their timeline. Colors indicates when projects are on budget and on time, or behind schedule or over budget. A project to replace the waterline on Hanging Moss Road, for example, is on schedule, budgeted at $127,000, and is in the planning stages.

Financial Transparency: Residents can browse monthly updates on Jackson’s revenue, expenses, and the city’s master infrastructure plan, along with comparing Jackson’s budget and spending to other similar cities.

“Socrata was our mechanism to bring data to every single infrastructure challenge. If we put the data in front of us, and let the data lead the narrative, then we have the ability to have a viable conversation with constituents who might not be aware what’s really happening,” says Bruce. With these websites, Jackson can show its work, and demonstrate to residents that the city is “effectively and efficiently using the dollars you gave us,” he says.

Yarber, who has prioritized transparency and spearheaded Mississippi’s first open data policy, sees the sites as creating an opportunity for citizens to get engaged and building residents’ trust in government. “Good government isn’t really good government unless everyone has the opportunity to put their hands in it,” says Yarber.

Generating and Using a River of Data

“We have plenty to measure in Jackson,” says Bruce. In monthly JackStats meetings, department heads and the mayor gather to view the data, make plans, and review progress. Here are some of Jackson’s major accomplishments since instituting the 2014 master infrastructure plan:

  • More than 100 streets paved
  • 69,724 potholes repaired through Operation Orange Cone
  • 289 buildings have been demolished as part of the blight-reduction project; 725 unsightly properties have been cleaned up by property owners, leading to a savings of over $1.4M since FY15
  • 30 projects initiated, and $40 million allocated from the sales tax fund, with a focus on streets, drainage, and bridges

Data helped lead the way on these projects, explains Bruce. Consider street repavement plans. Before developing a data-driven strategy, Jackson would pave a street one year, only to dig it up the following year, after discovering that pipes needed replacing. Bruce describes these layers of asphalt as “a coat of money on the streets” — a quick fix, but also a temporary and wasteful one.

Data has changed where, when, and how Jackson repaves its streets. Instead of prioritizing potholes based on drivability or citizen complaints, Jackson evaluates the condition of the pipes below, the soil condition, and all other relevant data first. “We’ve taken a holistic approach now, using the data to see which streets are most viable for paving so we avoid wasting taxpayer money,” says Bruce. “The data helps us know where the new pavement will get the most longevity.”

What’s Next? Moving Beyond Triage

“The data told us that we had triage,” says Yarber. The data from every department and division in the city needed to be examined to see where work needed to be done most urgently. “But you can’t just triage if you’re going to lead,” points out Yarber. “Leaders have to be able to move ahead, and intervene when necessary.”

That’s Jackson’s next move because, while much has been accomplished, much remains to be done. “We haven’t turned the corner yet,” says Yarber. “But what we have done is create momentum by listening to the data all around us, and that will allow us to turn the corner.” The data can help reveal where problems will occur, says Bruce, so that the city’s government can take preventative action to make repairs, instead of being in a reactive mode.

While advances and accomplishments are celebrated in Jackson, Yarber is eager always to pinpoint the why and how behind successes — this allows triumphs to be duplicated. “Our goal is to make the use of data so systemic to how Jackson’s government operates that it will outlast any one department head, city employee, initiative, or administration,” says Yarber.

A Closer Look at Operation Orange Cone

Most drivers can understand why Jackson residents care so much about fixing potholes. They make a significant difference in quality of life (and tire condition). Fortunately, thanks to some smart research into their 311 backlog, Jackson hasn’t ignored the potholes while addressing other pressing infrastructure matters. In fact, in under two years, Jackson has been able to fill 69,724 potholes, compared to previous average of 21, 000 per year - a nearly 60% increase.

That progress is thanks to Operation Orange Cone, which began with a question: Wouldn’t a centrally-located repair truck and workers fix more potholes than several trucks, scattered across several wards? This idea was tested before being put into action. After the Department of Public Works found there was no indication that this repair method would be less efficient, the mayor empowered the paving division to scrap their normal schedule.

Next, the city identified more than 50,000 calls to 311 about potholes or street damage. Crews then headed to a ward, placing orange cones on all the areas to fix. For two to three days, a 10-person crew would go on a “pothole blitz,” patching the potholes and closing out the 311 tickets. This initiative has helped Jackson close the backlog on 311, a tremendous achievement which included calls that dated back to 2010. And, fewer potholes mean fewer citizen complaints — instituting Operation Orange Cone helped decrease the 311 calls, in general.

Initially slated to be a two-week initiative, Operation Orange Cone began in 2015 and continues to this day.