The High Hopes Behind Bloomberg’s Bet on City Data

Bloomberg’s interests tend to be all over the map—as long as they are driven and supported by data. Now a $42 million program is asking America’s cities to come up with some new ideas that fit the bill.

Air pollution, tobacco, drownings, pedestrian deaths, overfishing—the direction of Michael Bloomberg’s ever-expanding giving is always surprising us. But in some ways, he’s one of the most predictable funders out there. Basically, Bloomberg Philanthropies is on the hunt for problems it can make a notable dent in with practical solutions, and always, always driven by data. 

Things have to demonstrably work. It’s almost like Bloomberg giving is calculated by an unseen algorithm, a Philanthrotron 5000. We’ve written before about how this methodical approach is both impressive and at times frustrating.


We've also noted that as Bloomberg has stepped up his giving, his foundation has stepped up its search for more and better data. Last month, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced that it was teaming up with the Australian government to launch a $100 million Data for Health initiative to better understand the causes of death worldwide. Right now, remarkably, most deaths aren't properly documented. And Bloombergwho is keen on reducing preventable deathsis hungry for data on why people die. This data drive, we're betting, lays the groundwork for much bigger giving.

Related - As Bloomberg Spends More to Save Lives, He Wants Better Data on How People Die

Bloomberg’s latest program challenges mid-sized American cities to approach their problems in a similar fashion. The What Works Cities Initiative invited cities with populations between 100,000 and 1 million to use data and evidence to improve effectiveness. One hundred cities will be selected to receive support for enhancing their use of data and evidence to improve services to solve problems for communities. This $42 million initiative sort of takes the Bloomberg ethos of philanthropy and opens it up to basically anything happening at the municipal level. 

One example it cites is BlightStat in New Orleans, which used data to reduce blighted residences. Or a program in Louisville that uses GPS in asthma inhalers to tackle poor air quality in parts of the city.

It’s reminiscent of city-based programs we’re seeing at the Knight and Rockefeller foundations, but this project is quintessential Bloomberg, bundling a handful of components the funder values.


For one thing, there’s the obvious focus on data. Philanthropists, with Bloomberg perhaps the poster child, are obsessed with new ways of interpreting, using, and evaluating massive amounts of data to get more bang for their buck. This program seizes the concept by telling cities to do anything, make any improvement, so long as it uses data.

It’s also indicative of the abiding faith that Bloomberg, you may remember he was a mayor of some city once, has in cities and their leadership. His climate work has focused a great deal on what cities can do to fight climate change and be more sustainable. And this is not the first city innovation program Bloomberg Philanthropies runs. 

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Bloomberg is, at the core, a businessman, but he believes deeply in the power of city government to do things that other institutions have not been able to. He’s not alone either. As mentioned above, Rockefeller has been running a similar competition, but focused on climate resilience. And Knight just ran its first city-based grant challenge.

Another potential payoff of the program is promoting government transparency, an issue that New York has spearheaded. Open government is an issue that, along with big data, is spreading like wildfire in terms of what leaders expect it can offer. Easily accessible online public records, easily reachable or trackable government services—these things have a lot of appeal to people of all political persuasions. 

For those on the right, it means accountability. For those on the left, it means safeguarding public funds and building trust in government. And the city level is the perfect laboratory for how transparency can improve governing. It also leaves open the potential for a brainy tech developer to come up with new applications based on open city data. 

Finally, maybe the biggest benefit from Bloomberg’s standpoint lies in the program’s title. This could set up 100 test cases for potential new things that work. Remember, Bloomberg Philanthropies is only interested in backing projects that will have a demonstrable impact. This program sets up testbeds across the country that will then exchange their information on whether some new idea did just that. 

Let’s say something like a GPS-enabled asthma inhaler shows potential to save 100 lives in one city. Bloomberg (or another foundation) could potentially fund something similar other cities, scaling up those 100 lives saved. Just the kind of numbers that foundations like Bloomberg want to see up on the scoreboard.