Shocker students help city improve its use of data

  • The City of Wichita collects data on its streets, services, traffic, weather and much more.
  • Wichita State students are working with Cornerstone Data to organize and manage that data.
  • Wichita State students will help city departments break their data out of silos.

Four Wichita State students work at 125 N. Market this summer with a view looking west over the Arkansas River, Keeper of the Plains and the baseball stadium under construction.

They can enjoy that panoramic view while digging into details that can help the City of Wichita do its business in a more efficient manner as part of a data analysis project with Cornerstone Data.

The experiences researching, organizing and cataloging the information are amplifying their classroom lessons in areas ranging from software to teamwork, trust and communication. The students are spending their summer helping the city use its data and share it across departments.

“In a classroom environment, you’re given a homework assignment and it’s due and then you never touch it again,” said Mackenzie Moore, a senior computer science major from Haysville. “We’re taking some of that stuff we touched on in class and really putting it in the real world and having to figure it out without going to your teacher.”

By the end of their project, the students will know much more about the City of Wichita and how its many departments might work together to diagnose and solve problems.

The city, said Mike Mayta, chief information officer for the city, needs help busting data out of silos.

“What we want to do is what’s commonly referred to as business intelligence,” Mayta said. “We have tons of data. How can we get value out of it? How can we make it purposeful and actionable?”

Joy Eakins, president of Cornerstone Data, said the city is tackling its data issues in the same way as many businesses.

A council member, for example, should be able to make decisions about an issue or a proposal based on data, in addition to other forms of feedback. The council member should then be able to use that data to explain those decisions to constituents.

We learned a lot about the city. I never really think of city government as being a business, but that's really what it is.
Karen Nason
Senior computer science major

“What the city wants to do is move their data maturity another step further … to look at what forecasting can they do or what can they can learn from the data they’re tracking about service they’re providing to make those service better,” Eakins said. “People are tracking what’s fixed, how many books are checked out, how many people went through the airport, how many potholes we looked at – there’s a lot of data tracking going on within a department.”

The students started with interviews with department and division heads and a survey to determine how departments use data, what data exists and what data is needed.

“We learned a lot about the city,” said Karen Nason, a senior computer science major from Minneapolis, Minn. “I never really think of city government as being a business, but that’s really what it is. Sometimes it doesn’t work as smoothly as it could and I’m hoping that once they know who has what from our data inventory, that will help.”

Pedestrian accident information is data that several departments can use if organized and made available, the students said. The Wichita Police Department, Public Works & Utilities, Wichita Transit and Parks & Recreation each might benefit from data that showed when and where pedestrians congregate and conditions that cause accidents.

“We’ve pulled in the weather, we’re looking at mapping events at that time all the way back, the traffic in the area,” said Jake Allen, an electrical engineering major from Wichita. “Then you match up when the accidents happened with the other affects in the area to see what the causes are and then you can prevent those from happening.”

Using the data, those departments might add streetlights, change stop signs, add police presence or change bike lanes.

“We were given raw data that’s been collected since 2005,” Moore said. “We were able to take that information and geo-locate where all these accidents were happening. That was really interesting to know where were hot spots were. We’re working on creating a Dashboard that they could use for that information.”

Both Mayta and Eakins view the project as a way to develop a workforce. They say they are challenged to find skilled workers and sometimes constrained by salary. This project can help create a workforce that pulls students from many disciplines who can work with different types of data and project plans.

“I decided about five years ago that instead of trying to hire experienced people . . . I would just start growing my own,” Eakins said. “We’ve just hired one intern after another, trained them up, got them to a place where we could afford to have them as an employee. It’s been really successful that we can, as a company, get people into a position of profitability very quickly here. We have a good mentoring process.”

Eakins said company needs for data jobs are diversifying, similarly to information technology and computer jobs.

“In the last five years, the number of job titles in the data industry has exploded and it’s reaching the Midwest,” she said. “We do not have the people in place in this area, so we have to grow them. And we need to be quick about it.”

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