Big Data Drives City of Buffalo's Operation Clean Sweep

By layering data from 311 and 911 calls over Census data, unemployment data and other poverty indicators, Buffalo uses data analytics to identify its most challenged neighborhoods and more effectively deploy resources for everything from neighborhood beautification to combatting crime and reducing fire hazards.

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Fri, September 06, 2013

CIO — It's often taken for granted that tough economic times lead to a reduction of public services. But that's not what has happened in Buffalo, N.Y., in the past several years. Rather than scale back city services, the city, which has a population of roughly 260,000 people, sought out ways to use big data to deploy services more efficiently and effectively to combat blight.

City of Buffalo Leverages Big Data for Clean Sweeps

Under former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, Buffalo initiated a program called Operation Clean Sweep, a law enforcement-focused program intended to address some of the rust belt city's poorest and most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Under the leadership of current Mayor Byron W. Brown (who took office in December 2005), the Clean Sweep program evolved into a collaborative program that brings together dozens of city departments, as well as partners from state, county and federal agencies and nonprofit health and human services providers.

On a given day, they descend on a city neighborhood to remove litter, debris and graffiti; fill potholes; prune trees; mow overgrown lots; repair street lights; set rat traps; and seal vacant houses. They provide employment and health care services, install smoke detectors, check that housing codes are being met, establish neighborhood watch programs and create relationships with community members. Volunteers pass out oral hygiene bags and test blood pressure. Even utility providers participate.

"Buffalo being a pretty old city, our infrastructure is sometimes challenged," says Oswaldo Mestre, Jr., director of the Division of Citizen Services of the Office of the Mayor and the City of Buffalo 311 Call and Resolution Center.

"We're a rust belt city. We get a lot of calls regarding housing, for instance. We take that data and one day out of the week—we don't tell anybody that we're coming—we cordon off the streets for two square blocks and send in teams of professionals door to door. We provide information," says Mestre.

"If people don't have smoke detectors, we will give them smoke detectors and install them; carbon monoxide detectors as well. Each agency will talk to residents about what they have to offer. And while we're doing that, we're gathering quality of life intelligence," says Oswaldo Mestre. "People in these neighborhoods are often reluctant to talk to officials. But they don't feel like they're being exposed because while they're talking, we're trimming trees and hedges and there are police officers walking around."

"When we leave, we're literally leaving it completely different," he adds.

Video footage of each Clean Sweep is broadcast on cable television, and Mestre says the resulting live reality TV program has become one of the most popular programs in the Buffalo area. Not only does it serve as a crime deterrent, Mestre says it combats hopelessness in the city's most challenged neighborhoods by showing that the government has not forsaken its citizens. Instead, it is actively working to improve their lives.

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