Pittsburgh's data guru Meixell is ready; first challenge is 311 system

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During his campaign and his first days in office, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto talked enthusiastically about how data -- big data, open data, performance-based budgeting -- will transform city governance.

Now that the rhetorical rubber must hit the road, he has put a face on that initiative: 28-year-old Laura Meixell, whom he hired as the city's first data and analytics manager. Ms. Meixell, a native of Bethlehem, Pa., has applied her savvy with data to help manage everything from Louisville's overcrowded jails to studying an invasive ant species in Hawaii.

But in Pittsburgh, where the systems to collect and analyze data are piecemeal or nonexistent, she may face her biggest challenge yet.

On Tuesday, about two weeks before she settled into Bloomfield, Ms. Meixell stood alongside Mr. Peduto and Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak in announcing the city's first Open Data Ordinance, which the councilwoman proposed at that day's council meeting. If passed, the ordinance would lead to the creation of a new city website that would host reams of previously unavailable or hard-to-access data on everything from crime to potholes to 311 calls.

It's information that would be useful both for residents who want an inside look at city government and for policymakers who could use the data to inform how they marshal resources.

"We're in such a fantastic position to do this here," she said. "We have so many people in the community ... excited about it and this is a fantastic start. I'm so excited to get going."

Ms. Meixell, a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, got an early start in public service. The daughter of a union pipe fitter, she was steeped in union culture and volunteered for her first political campaign when she was 15.

She spent her junior year of high school, 2002-03, in Washington, D.C., as a congressional page.

"It was an intense time to be in D.C.," she said.

"I ... came back from that really feeling like what the Bush administration was doing at that time was antithetical to the values that I had cultivated as a union kid and a church kid."

During her senior year in high school, she was hired as a full-time campaign staffer for Joe Driscoll, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for a U.S. House seat. Campaigns, she said, provided her with her first exposure to using data -- managing lists of volunteers in Excel.

She graduated from University of Pittsburgh with a degree in political science and later earned a master's in public administration at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. There, she worked on the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Community and Community Information System, a project that integrates data from the city, Allegheny County and school districts to provide up-to-date community information.

That, she said, provided her with "a huge amount of on-the-job training." From there, she earned a Presidential Management Fellowship, which took her on rotations with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development -- where she worked on homeless issues among veterans and helped the department identify where and why its housing vouchers were working. She took a six-month rotation with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Honolulu, where she helped the service map out a new piece of property they acquired to identify potential environmental hazards.

When she finished that work ahead of schedule, she was made a biologists' assistant on a project to eliminate the Yellow Crazy Ant from Johnston Atoll, which had once been used as a military test site and was converted into a refuge for turtles and birds. That required her to spend time hunched over in a field counting ants as they marched across an index card so she could test various kinds of bait.

Last year, she was a fellow with San Francisco-based Code for America and was paired with a team to work on criminal justice issues in Louisville, Ky., where the local jail has chronic overcrowding. The team interviewed 200 people -- including the mayor, police chief, beat cops and judges -- and developed the Jail Population Management Dashboard, "which is not a super sexy name," Ms. Meixell admitted.

The dashboard compiled and delivered data on inmates and those in "incarceration alternatives," such as probation. It now gives police, judges, prosecutors and other public officials critical information about the overburdened jail system. So, for example, if a judge assumes that an inmate can get $500 to post bond, the judge might be surprised to learn that a small percentage of inmates with bond at that level actually get out.

"It provides a lot of tools and visibility for judges and prosecutors that previously had not existed at all into the current status of the population that's in the jail and also in what's called the incarceration alternatives," she said.

At the beginning of this year, she landed back in Pittsburgh, where she faces the daunting task of evaluating the city's systems of collecting and analyzing data.

Take the city's 311 system, which Mr. Peduto has made one of his first priorities. On Thursday, at a news conference that doubled as a sort of pep rally for the 311 center's small cadre of employees, he vowed to make changes to make the systems more efficient and gave the workers boxes of doughnuts to thank them. Debra Lam, Mr. Peduto's chief of performance and innovation, said the current 311 system "is failing."

Right now, employees work with three separate databases, and the way complaints are communicated to the departments is cumbersome, often involving paperwork.

And that means rebalancing the workforce -- shifting more laborers, for example, to an area of the city that has more pothole complaints -- is tough to do.

Also, little data is available to help those in charge make adjustments based on the kind of work coming in.

Ms. Meixell will be among those spearheading the changes to the 311 center.

"The mayor definitely has a vision for what he wants in terms of being able to visualize what sort of calls are coming in, what the nature of those calls are and how quickly concerns are being addressed," she said.

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.

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