Case Study: Have You Found the Secret Key to Understanding Your Citizens?

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Connecting state and local government leaders

“Human data” analysis unlocks true public representation.

Citizens are more vocal than ever with social media, online comment sections, and “email your representative” options. Because of Big Data silos, state and local policy makers are able to capture all of this information, but how do they make sense of it? The challenge is analytics. No one has time to read through every single comment and tweet, so these opinions are reduced to numbers. How can representatives look at numbers and actually know how people feel about proposed city, county, and state plans?

State and local policymakers know that they must take into account both the facts of an issue and the feelings of citizens surrounding the issue. This is why leaders hold public hearings and town halls, request constituent letters, and conduct polls.

Whether government officials are debating a new stop sign or determining a new tax policy, no decision is too small or too big to take citizen’s feelings into account. But when constituent feedback comes in the form of letters, photographs, drawings and even vocally expressed opinions, how can policymakers interpret it all? The staggering truth is that 90 percent of data collected is unstructured, meaning that it doesn’t come in the form of a number and is not easily quantifiable. When decisionmakers ask only for data in terms of “yes” or “no,” “favorable” or “unfavorable,” rather than open-ended questions and discussion, they miss out on rich insight. Only looking at the simplified yes-or-no numerical data leaves a huge hole of missed information that could point policymaking in a completely different direction.

In the wake of almost unimaginable tragedy, the city of Christchurch, on New Zealand’s South Island, discovered a better way. When a string of devastating earthquakes ranging in severity from magnitude 5.5 to 7.1 hit the city, more than 1,500 buildings were destroyed—including many in its central business district—leaving people in physical and emotional turmoil. City leaders faced the unenviable task of determining how to rebuild.

Of course, the easiest solution would have been to simply recreate what had been destroyed. But municipal leaders took this opportunity to listen to citizens and build a future that reflected what every citizen thought. First, they identified the basic needs of renewal. Then, they took to the streets, conducting focus groups, surveys, and challenging citizens to share their opinions in whatever way they felt necessary.

Citizen feedback came in all forms: emails, letters, survey comments, focus group feedback, photographs, drawings and even a LEGO-constructed depiction of the city. Aware that this data needed the right interpretation, officials turned to QSR International’s NVivo software, which helps researchers integrate non-numerical, “human” data with fact-based quantitative data. QSR International’s software allowed researchers to easily see the intersections between how citizens felt about their city and those concrete infrastructure needs that had to be managed.

What surprised city leaders was that citizens wanted their new city to feature more community- and health-focused spaces, such as green spaces, parks, and bike trails—something officials hadn’t previously considered. This analysis provided a more accurate examination of what residents truly wanted for the future of their community than any methods used before.

Officials developed the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan, since which the city has experienced massive residential growth and vitality. More than 50,000 new homes are anticipated. And public spaces in the inner city draw more residents and visitors. People are happier, which has boosted commerce and morale.

Human data analytical software is being used across the U.S. as well. From the state of Alaska to Los Angeles County to the New York City Department of Public Health, government organizations are leveraging software that helps them analyze and find insights in public comments—coming in the form of survey data, interviews, and focus groups. Representatives use this tool to improve services provided by that state or county department for the benefit of the public.

Software is being used by academic researchers and US federal government entities to unlock the hidden insights in unstructured data. Local and state governments are discovering the ways this technology helps them make decisions that resonate with their constituents and make their cities, policies, homes better.

While it may seem like an extreme example, the lesson of Christchurch is this: listening to citizen feedback can progress a whole city. Currently, up to 90 percent of all data collected can be categorized as qualitative, or human. This data includes the comments, opinions and feelings local governments typically seek from constituents but that rarely get incorporated into final decisions because they lack the right tools to analyze it.

Citizens tell government officials how they feel every single day. Are you listening?

Chris Astle is the Chief Executive Officer of QSR International.

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