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In Covington, data drives push for better service

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Dr. Todd Sink is the City of Covington's Manager of Analytics & Intelligence

COVINGTON, Ky. - In a second-floor office far from the public eye, the City of Covington’s numbers guru, Dr. Todd Sink, is doing his thing: aggregating, organizing, labeling, checking, analyzing, warehousing, and updating data. 

Lots of data. So far, in fact, 1.75 million different records.
 
Want to know what percent of the 11,726 emergency calls to the Fire Department in 2017 were actually life squad runs?
 
Dr. Sink can tell you: 80 percent.
 
How long it takes for an apartment in the Housing Choice Voucher program (formerly Section 8) to be approved for occupancy?
 
On average, 18.4 days - almost a week faster than it was in 2016.
 
How much garbage Covington residents produce?
 
41,826 tons in Fiscal Year 2017 - down 1.8 percent from Fiscal Year 2016. (In that same period, the amount of garbage that was recycled increased 16.8 percent.)
 
Statistically speaking, when it comes to city government services in Covington, there’s not much that Dr. Sink doesn’t know or isn’t in the process of finding out.
 
But he’s not collecting memorabilia. There’s a higher goal to his COVDATA work: Using information to improve the services that City Hall delivers.
 
“Numbers are a tool, and the whole point of that tool is to help us make strategic decisions that better help us elevate the lives of our residents here in Covington,” City Manager David Johnston said. “Thus we’ve begun looking at the services we provide and are asking ourselves, ‘How can we do customer service better?’ Todd is helping us to answer those questions.”
 
And those answers are designed to have real-world impact: 
  • Reducing the time it takes to inspect an apartment proposed for subsidized housing helps a young mother with kids move more quickly from a car or a friend’s couch into a home. 
  • Quicker response times for emergency personnel literally save lives. 
  • And understanding ebbs and flows in the demand for public services helps the City allocate revenue and resources. 
The possibilities for improving service to residents are endless, said Dr. Sink, whose title is Manager of Analytics & Intelligence. “What’s the question you want to answer? Just tell me,” he said, “and I can try to find some data that will help you answer it.”
 
While many of these evaluations are in the infancy stage (“Right now we’re crawling, by the end of the year we hope to be walking,” Dr. Sink says), his analysis is already having impact.
 
For example, Police Chief Rob Nader used detailed data from Dr. Sink to support his decision to adjust the start times for two of his shifts to create overlap during the busiest part of the day
 
And examining the number of “open” case files in the Code Enforcement Department led managers to realize that final action had actually already been taken in thousands of those cases - they just needed an officer to acknowledge that action and sign off on the closure. The follow-up led to better organization, cleaner records, and ultimately better enforcement.
 
Day to day, Dr. Sink’s data collection and analysis are helping to inspire and frame ongoing policy discussions and performance evaluations.
 
During a presentation on the COVDATA project to the Covington City Commission in late April, Dr. Sink identified several performance management goals.
 
Covington’s Fire Department, for example, has an array of internal goals related to how long it takes to get to an emergency, such as reducing the travel time for the first fire truck on a scene to 240 seconds or less in 90 percent of runs, and getting a life squad out the door in 120 seconds or less on at least 90 percent of runs between midnight and 8 a.m.
 
By breaking the numbers down to their smallest sets - such as by station, by truck, by shift, by crew, by day of the week or time - the department can identify reasons for delays and take steps to fix those, Fire Chief Mark Pierce said.
 
“It gives us both an overall picture and then makes it easier for us to zero in on problems and figure out ways to improve,” Pierce said.
 
Likewise, recently Dr. Sink began working with the Fire Department to analyze the increasing number and cost of false alarms.
 
The numbers were troubling.
 
In 2017, firefighters from Covington’s five firehouses were dispatched 670 times to calls that turned out to be false, up from 501 in 2013. Some 3,070 fire trucks were dispatched to those false alarms in 2017. Covington taxpayers had to pay for gasoline and wear and tear on heavy equipment, as well as staff time that could have been better used elsewhere, Pierce said.
 
Dr. Sink further broke down the numbers to identify the causes of false alarms (for example, 28 percent over five years were the result of alarm system or smoke detector malfunction) and where they’re happening (51 percent over five years were in non-residential properties).
 
Knowing why false alarms happen and where they happen most frequently is helping the fire department work with building owners to get problematic systems upgraded and to educate property owners and residents about behavior that sets off alarms.
 
“We’re trying to reduce the drain on City services as well as free our personnel and vehicles to respond to actual emergencies,” Pierce said.
 
In the Police Department, Chief Nader had long known that calls to police were increasing, and by a large margin: In 2013, Covington police received 38,687 calls. By 2017, that had increased to 42,890.
 
He knew he needed more officers, but in the meantime he wanted to assign the officers he had more efficiently. So he worked with Sink to dig below the surface, analyzing where the calls originated, when they were made and how serious they turned out to be - since some calls require only one officer while others require two or more.
 
After looking at the numbers, the Chief moved the start times of two of his shifts to create more overlap during peak times. “I would have done it anyway but I used his data to back my decision,” Nader said.
 
Dr. Sink also was able to tell Nader how often patrol officers traveled outside of their assigned areas to help an officer in another “beat.”
 
And earlier this year, Dr. Sink used call volume to create an estimate for overtime costs for the Police Department to use in its budget forecasts. The reassuring thing, Nader said, is that when that formula was applied to a previous year, it came within $300 of the actual cost.
 
What Nader likes about working with Sink is that “it’s a two-way street.”
 
“He’s willing to improvise and tweak his research to fit what we’re requesting,” Chief Nader said. And from his end, Dr. Sink said he was “able to analyze one number a dozen different ways to extract all the useful information I can out of it.”
 
In a similar way, Dr. Sink is analyzing numbers related to Code Enforcement investigations, recycling, special garbage collections, and missed garbage pickups, looking for trends and obvious gaps.
 
Dr. Sink, who has a Ph.D. in economic geography from Indiana State University, was hired by the City in January 2016. His work was given increased direction with the arrival in August 2017 of City Manager Johnston, who has emphasized finding useful purposes for the data Dr. Sink was aggregating and making sure the data is reconciled with the departments and agencies where it originated.
 
“David’s all about customer service,” Dr. Sink said. “He’s made that the common theme to my work across all departments.”
 
Last fall, Dr. Sink brought attention to Covington’s efforts with a presentation at the Kentucky League of Cities’ conference and expo. Shortly thereafter, the City launched the COVDATA transparency and accountability portal.
 
At COVDATA, which can be found HERE, the public can browse data sets and reports that document city operations, including those related to budgets, taxes, garbage pickup, arrests and response times. Residents can also check out crime statistics in their neighborhood and report overflowing trash cans in City parks.
 
“Governing without data is like driving a car blindfolded,” the COVDATA website says. “When we use data and analytics to make decisions, we take off the blindfolds and are able to improve our government operations and the services we provide.”
 
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