"I didn't need to deconstruct the complaints," Flowers explains. "I deconstructed the problem. And I deconstructed the problem using city data."
Flowers' team looked for several telling metrics, including the following:
-- Is the building in a "high-risk neighborhood," which Flowers calls code for a neighborhood for poorer citizens who are much more likely to live in dangerous conditions?
-- Was the building built before 1938? The building code changed in that year, and buildings built after the change tend to be safer.
-- Is the building under foreclosure or a tax lien? "The reason those two are important is that it just speaks to the owner's financial condition," Flowers says. "I don't think there's anything revelatory in the fact that if a landlord is broke, they're going to treat their building like crap."
-- Have there been complaints? "Complaints do matter," Flowers says. "If there was a prior complaint and then a subsequent complaint six months later, it was much more likely that there was going to be a fire."
With the correct data identified, Flowers' team created a tool that was directly usable by the inspectors closest to the problem. Before inspectors had the tool, they found buildings so unsafe that they had to vacate them 13% of the time. Eighteen months after Flowers' project, inspectors now vacate 70% of the buildings.
"We won because we had the right data," Flowers says. "The city's data is good and we used it in the right way."
"All we did was prioritize," he adds. "It was immediately actionable intelligence. That's why it works."
With the value of data-driven decision-making proven, Flowers says he has three goals to achieve before Mayor Bloomberg leaves office in January 2014:
-- Establish citywide analytics focused on leveraging agency resources more efficiently and effectively
-- Grow and enable the culture of data-driven resource allocation at the agency level
-- Push dynamic New York City data to the public, tech/entrepreneurial community and academia
Thor Olavsrud covers IT Security, Big Data, Open Source, Microsoft Tools and Servers for CIO.com. Follow Thor on Twitter @ThorOlavsrud. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline