Telling the Story of Urban Innovation and Pandemic Response with Data

In late March 2020, shortly after COVID-19 was recognized as a global pandemic, the National League of Cities (NLC) partnered with Bloomberg Philanthropies to create the COVID-19 Local Action Tracker. This database cataloged in real time how city leaders across the country were responding to the unprecedented challenges associated with the pandemic by introducing social distancing measures, acquiring personal protective equipment (PPE), and regulating stay-at-home orders.

Over the past two years, our team at NLC built this into a powerful data storytelling tool with almost 5,000 policies tracked across 800 cities. Through the process, we not only gathered invaluable insights into innovative city policies, but we also discovered the power of data storytelling to democratize shared lessons, improve local advocacy, and evaluate policy interventions.

Democratize shared lessons

The early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic saw a proliferation of data graphics highlighting trend lines that showcased the change in case numbers, death rates, and other relevant public health information. These types of data visualizations were incredibly valuable for the general public and for city leaders to assess the situation within their communities. Building off these baseline statistics, our Local Action Tracker combined data-driven trends on popular policy areas with narrative-oriented examples of how cities were addressing their public health, economic, and social challenges. Rather than reinventing the wheel for good policy initiatives, local elected officials were able to identify relevant insights from peer cities and apply them in their own contexts. For example, many cities, ranging from Nashville, Tennessee to Puyallup, Washington, partnered with local businesses to provide gift cards as an incentive for receiving vaccines last summer.

Data storytelling humanizes aggregated, high-level statistics and roots them in the reality of the lived experiences of the stories’ “characters.” Faced with sharply dropping city revenues and increasing expenditures, we saw mayors, council members and other local leaders navigate uncharted waters. City leaders in Cincinnati, Ohio, took a pay cut to their own salaries amidst revenue shortfalls and prioritized city budget spending on supporting those most impacted by the pandemic, such as local small businesses.  By showcasing their stories using data in real time, we were able to help them navigate these challenges together and democratize their shared lessons.

Improve local advocacy

In addition to humanizing high-level statistics, data storytelling also has the power to connect the dots of individual anecdotes and weave them into a compelling thematic narrative. For example, it was immediately clear from the beginning of the pandemic that cities would face added financial pressure due to an overall decrease in economic activity. However, it was not clear how much this would impact cities. There were stories of some cities whose budgets had been hit exceptionally hard while other cities appeared to have experienced only minor setbacks. So, what was driving these differences?

Our data storytelling efforts uncovered a key storyline demonstrating the critical role of municipal tax revenue structures, as cities heavily reliant on more dynamic sources such as income and sales tax saw more immediate financial impact compared to cities dependent on property tax. Overall, our research showed that cities in 2020 experienced $90 billion in revenue loss. This data-driven insight empowered cities to collectively advocate for federal assistance to ensure that essential city services were maintained. The financial challenges that they faced were not one-off examples, but rather part of a collective story that, when amplified, eventually led to the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, which provided more than $65 billion to all municipalities across the country.

Evaluate policy interventions

Data storytelling is an effective tool to both find human stories amidst large datasets and identify data-driven themes woven throughout individual anecdotes. It can also provide us with a lens to reflect and evaluate where we have come from in order to inform best practices in the future. Our COVID-19 Local Action Tracker recently celebrated its two-year anniversary. In celebrating the occasion, we collected secondary data indicators that measured the top five key themes of policies that cities had pursued – public health, city operations, infrastructure, housing, and economic/workforce development. In the graphic below, we examined how local government employment numbers had fluctuated during the past two years and were able to demonstrate the effectiveness of ARPA in significantly increasing those job numbers. We can thus see that there is significant value both in leveraging data storytelling in real-time to shine light on current scenarios and in using it as a reflective tool to identify successful policies.

Our team’s experience building out the COVID-19 Local Action Tracker during the past two years has taught us valuable lessons about how to use data to tell city stories. We empathized with our stories’ heroes recognizing them as more than dots on a scatterplot and instead as public servants fighting for their local residents. We energized cities so that they could see themselves as more than singular entities and instead as part of a broader community collectively experiencing a similar storyline. And with the benefit of hindsight, we evaluated the success of both federal and local policies to identify and promote best practices for cities to adopt moving forward in building back better from this pandemic.

Program Manager, City Innovation and Data at National League of Cities | pine@nlc.org

Joshua works on the Urban Innovation team at the National League of Cities (NLC) where he leads the organization’s data visualization portfolio. He specializes in leveraging data to inform local policymaking and in amplifying best practices through data storytelling. Based in Cincinnati OH, he is an electric bike enthusiast and passionate advocate for active transportation.