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Faced with water shortages, Henderson, Nevada, has turned to a data-driven approach to solve it. It’s now rolling out its approach to other departments citywide.
Henderson, nestled in the Mojave Desert, is roughly 16 miles southeast of Las Vegas. Unsurprisingly, given its location, the Nevada city of more than 330,000 people struggles with its water supply.
Nearby Lake Mead’s water levels remain critically low after years of drought and despite a wet year in the southwestern U.S. The lake is currently only about 30% full, making the situation urgent. As a result, officials in Henderson have been forced to find ways to conserve water. But the city isn’t stopping there: Henderson is also utilizing data to make sure it’s successful.
So far, the city has come up with two methods to reduce water usage: mandating the removal of decorative-only grass from certain properties and converting non-recreational grass in all its parks to drought-tolerant grass by 2026. It is estimated the former action will save 10% of the city’s water supply, while the latter effort will save around 150 million gallons of water each year.
Henderson is using data to make sure these methods are working. It is measuring its progress through several metrics, including community sentiment, the efficiency of water use at city facilities and enforcement of water conservation regulations.
These efforts are part of the city’s larger climate strategy to achieve a healthy, livable and sustainable city. In time, and by embracing its use of data and measurable benchmarks, officials hope to ultimately reach net zero for consumptive water use by 2035 and exceed the Las Vegas Valley region’s overall percentage reduction in net consumptive water use.
“We’re really helping to change our consumptive water use behavior through data by discovering attributes and benefits relevant to the role and use of water in Henderson,” said Kiersten Farmer, data scientist in the city’s Office of Performance and Innovation, during a Route Fifty webinar this week.
Henderson is taking its data-driven decision-making beyond water conservation, a choice made during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Farmer. Using data during that time allowed the city to suspend shutting off customers’ water and waive late fees, as 12% of customers were past due on their bills. Today, led by the Office of Performance and Innovation, each of the city’s 17 departments now has a dedicated data analyst.
The Office of Performance and Innovation opened its doors more than a decade ago, and Farmer said that even since she joined the agency in 2018, there have been employees “reticent to change” as they worried data analysis was “just a fad.”
Farmer pointed to a quote from writer Brené Brown, who once said, “Stories are just data with a soul.” She uses that saying when explaining why the data analysis culture matters and how to get employees on board.
“We sometimes say data-informed, data-centric, data-fluid,” Farmer said. “Whatever word it is that you use in relation to your own organization, that data is meant to be your divining rod. With it, you can identify situational context, you can attach meaning, and in that way, it does become a story.”
To that end, the office has bolstered its educational offerings by launching a data academy to allow any city employee to learn about data analysis and the tools needed to build visualizations, an effort that demystified data and helped change the city’s culture around it. Instituting an open data portal that is accessible by all employees has also helped the city have more “data conversations,” Farmer said, especially with senior leaders who help decide how to use it alongside their dedicated data analysts.
The city adapted the federal Baldrige Performance Excellence Program to track its progress towards improving its leadership, strategy, customer service, measurement, workforce, operations and results. Agencies all have been coached on how to use data to inform their decisions, drive outcomes and institute policies and practices to make the city well-managed and data driven, Farmer said.
And there is more to do. Currently, Henderson is working on implementing its enterprise data strategy, which is being created concurrently with a separate strategy for the Department of Utility Services. The latter is necessary as the department is further along in implementing its own data management program given its role in energy and water conservation. Farmer, though, said the two efforts must be aligned.
“We're trying to create a strategy that encompasses both the organization as a whole and the efforts that we're making over there [at the Department of Utility Services],” she said. “We're not quite across the chasm yet. But it's been a learning experience and a fun one at that.”