Making data useful for decision makers

March 4, 2021

Name: Ryan Wedell

Title: Open Data Specialist

City: Chattanooga, Tenn.

Data-driven city halls need mayors and managers who are committed to making decisions based on evidence rather than gut feelings. But they also need people like Ryan Wedell working behind the scenes.

Wedell’s job in Chattanooga is to coordinate with city departments to ensure that the vast amount of information flowing out of their databases and spreadsheets is clean, clear, and presented in a way that leaders can actually use it. That’s particularly important at high-level monthly meetings where department heads are put on the spot to answer questions about performance. “The last thing you want is the meeting to get derailed because someone doesn’t trust the data they’re looking at,” Wedell said. “What I do is extract the value and make meaning out of the data we have, because there’s so much of it.”

Wedell also collaborates with agencies on special data projects that they pitch to the three-person team he works with at the Office of Performance Management and Open Data. A recent project he led came from the Fire Department. The Department wanted help with identifying commercial properties at highest risk for catching fire. Wedell worked with them to develop an algorithm that builds on data such as where false alarms have occurred previously, as well as the age of buildings and the materials they're made of.

With limited resources to put toward building inspections, the Fire Department is now using Wedell’s predictive scoring to prioritize its efforts. “We’re just the data nerds,” Wedell said. “We don’t know much about fires. But we can look at the data that we do collect, and probably make a decent prediction about what might be a fire risk.”

Pro tip: “When the project you’re working on encounters a problem is often when you learn the most. Stay open-minded about those challenges being great opportunities.”