3 Ways to Train Your City to Use Data

If data is the new bacon, training is the grill that makes that it edible. Raw data, like raw bacon isn’t great, but it has potential if you know how to use it. To make raw data useful, people need skills and tools to understand data, analyze it, and act upon it effectively. There are many ways government employees can be trained in data usage, from traditional classes to city run “academies” to a DIY model. Let’s discuss how each of these works, so you can find the right training for yourself.

“Traditional” Classes

The GovEx team is training staff in our partner cities (and beyond) to put data to use in their work to provide services to residents. Since we are based at a university, we take a pretty traditional approach to training, offering online courses.

The current GovEx course provides a foundation in understanding and analyzing data in government and goes beyond quantitative methods and focuses on performance analytics challenges. We teach cities to use tools and techniques government analysts are likely to have at their disposal to address common challenges. Our goal is to train current government employees to use these methods everyday and reduce the perceived barriers to entry when it comes to using data.

Of course, GovEx can’t train everyone, so we’ve also developed a “train the trainer” model. In this model, we offer training to people in cities who will then directly train their colleagues. For example, we developed a series of trainings with the City and County of Denver focused on introducing analytics concepts to employees unfamiliar with using data and providing new skills and analytical tools for employees with more advanced understanding of data. After implementing initial training sessions developed in coordination with GovEx, Denver will now offer the courses on their own for interested employees from across the city.

City-Run Academies

Denver has been running its award winning Peak Academy program for awhile, teaching city employees to use Lean operations models to make small changes in their daily work that will make a big difference over time. But learning never stops. Established, successful training programs need to continue to develop the skills of their employees. Denver, with the support of GovEx and What Works Cities, took its training to the next level by focusing on analytics.

Denver worked with GovEx to develop and launch a new course for Peak Academy focusing on putting analytics into practice. During this two-day course, trainers and staff covered the basics of an analytics process, from finding and cleaning data to using basic inferential statistics and building dashboards to display information. The course also used Denver’s open 311 data to give employees a chance to practice analyzing and communicating with data that is relevant to everyday city operations. By the end of the course, participants had the ability to start working on data from their own departments and create dashboards to display critical decision-making information to management.

GovEx also worked with Denver to develop an advanced analytics course targeting employees with existing data skills. These employees wanted to accelerate their ability to use a variety of data tools beyond basic spreadsheets and databases. The City partnered with the University of Denver to deliver a half-day intensive workshop on using advanced analytical software (in this case the software package R). Employees brought data from their daily work and began using the software to answer pressing questions. As a result, Denver staff could improve operations immediately using advanced techniques they previously didn’t know.

DIY Training (aka, Making Your Own Bacon)

Most cities don’t have an award-winning training program to build on when thinking about training employees to use data. That’s ok. There are a few easy steps you can take to get started:

    1. Don’t start from scratch when establishing a training program. There a ton of resources that already exist. Even in an advanced training program like Denver’s, a partnership with a local university was critical, so don’t be afraid to ask around. Talk to local organizations, such as universities or nonprofits. Use the internet liberally to find what is on offer. A couple of places to start are the GovEx guides, especially our Data Science 101 resources, and the Johns Hopkins Data Science Specialization on Coursera.
    2. Assess the actual needs of your staff. Getting information from staff on what data skills they already have, what tools they already use, and how they want to improve will help you target the right type of training. In Denver, GovEx and city staff developed and sent a survey to data analysts across the organization to get information on what an analytics course should focus on. Then we built the first course around their answers.
    3. Use What You’ve Got. It’s always tempting to think that a shiny new technology product will “instantly” make it easier for people to use data. Often, that’s not the case. Instead, focus on better using what you have. For instance, Excel is a very powerful tool that can perform a variety of tasks with data and few people use it to its fullest extent.

In order to get people to use data, we need to train them to do it well. Using training to improve the skills and capture the interests of public servants is a critical to making data an integral part of work in your city.

If you want to learn more about GovEx courses, or undertake your own training program, whether an full-blown academy or a course, let us know. We love to hear the skills you are building and what you’d like to learn next.