• Matthew Chang

A Challenge to America's Mayors


Atlanta Airport "A"​ Terminal mid-day during COVID-19

In the midst of this pandemic sweeping the nation, we thought it appropriate to take a pause in our article series focused on the smart city initiatives in Jacksonville to talk about something more pressing. In this article, we will be talking about the role that data and policy making play in our cities' approach to this national emergency.


The Coronavirus / COVID-19 "new" normal is a national emergency and a national obsession. It’s changing everything about our daily lives, and we aren’t sure when things will go back to normal, or if we’ll have to adjust to a “new” normal. I’ve never seen so many people so passionate about researching a topic – consuming all of the news and academic studies. Were it not for the disruption and anxiety from the pandemic, it would feel like the entire country (and globe) was going through an intense college semester together. New vocabulary, new science, and new math.

One thing is missing for me. Meaningful numbers. I’m an engineer, and I NEED numbers that mean something.

Before I discuss the numbers, I’d like to challenge our mayors, civic leaders, and government leaders to take one of three stances:


  1. Federal Plan - We’ll follow the guidance of federal authorities. This includes CDC, the executive branch, and the regulatory authorities.

  2. State Plan - We’ll follow the guidance of state authorities. This includes Governors and health departments.

  3. City Plan - We are creating our own plan, based on the local data available,

This article is for leaders that take stance #3, create their own city plan.


Everything in the world that runs well, runs on the ability to manage to numbers. Profit and loss, efficiency, patients per day, average spend per customer, days of aging for receivables, miles driven per day, bushels per acre, and employee retention / turnover.  Need I go on? As entrepreneurs, administrators, managers, and employees, we all have to “hit our numbers”. 


Coronavirus is now 2 months old in US policy maker’s minds. It was late January that we banned international flights from China, marking the time that government policy makers started taking the pandemic seriously. Coronavirus is, now, 1 month old in our backyard. It was early March that schools, conferences, public venues, and other mass gatherings started getting cancelled. In the early days, I understood the paradigm that we don’t have enough data. We were closely watching China and Italy, and we didn’t have a scheme in place to test people. By now, we all know that. 


What I’m proposing is that America’s responsive mayors start by creating metrics for success and failure. Then, start managing to the numbers. Communicate the progress we make as a community, and revise the plan as new information and learnings become available. Select a few areas where your community can lead by example or innovate. Select many areas to be fast-followers and adopt best practices in real time. Listen to a cross-functional group of policy making experts. Staff your advisory board with medical experts, economists, engineers, public policy makers, first responders / law enforcement, and emergency response professionals. Make clear the safety, enforcement, and supply chain policies that will result when we are missing our numbers and the relaxation of policies when we are achieving or exceeding our numbers. Hold regular press briefings and social media updates to communicate progress on the plan.


From what I can discern from my reading on the topic, here is a proposed list of metrics:


  1. Confirmed / Suspected number of cases

  2. Hospitalizations / Fatalities

  3. Hospital Capacity

  4. Rate of Growth / Rate of Spread

  5. Access to PPE (masks, hoods, ventilators)

  6. Availability of test kits

  7. Availability of drug treatments

  8. Availability of blood / plasma treatments

  9. Anti-body testing for herd immunity measurements

  10. Effectiveness of current policies

Next, we have to consider how to benchmark ourselves. We need to create a series of benchmarks from data sets that we consider to be relevant and start real time tracking and updating. The challenge with bench-marking is the bad data that’s out there, but that’s almost always the case in business and management. We just have to sort through it and do the best we can. Do we actually believe China limited their cases to 80,000 and prevented spread to Shanghai and Beijing while allowing spread to Europe, South America, and the USA? Do we compare ourselves to northern Italy which has an “anti-vaccine” culture, aging population, and an unusually high occurrence of influenza each year? Do we compare ourselves to impacted domestic cities such as, New York, Los Angeles, or Seattle? 


Finally, we must consider what is working and not working in our community. Does taking extreme measures to “flatten the curve” appear to be working?  Is it possible to “over flatten” the curve, setting ourselves up for a boomerang effect or un-necessary economic suppression? Are we considering other health effects, such as anxiety, depression, and suicide? Have we created a system of incentives that allow the community to band together? 


After going through this analytical approach, we should create clear policies and data tracking that is transparent to the public. Be clear about the policies and their associated metrics and be clear when policies will be relaxed or tightened. Do schools need to be closed if the data reveals that healthy children are not at a moderate or high risk? Will we be more resilient as a community if we develop “herd immunity” in our healthy population? Can we effectively implement a policy of prolonged social distancing for immuno-compromised and the elderly (until vaccines are available)? Are we stronger or weaker as a society if we prohibit mass gatherings of faith? Does promoting exercise (with good hygiene) enable a more resilient populace? 


In summary, I’m curious to hear what good and bad numbers look like. I also want to hear about learnings about our community in real time. What is a realistic expectation if we conform to public health policies that are intended to slow the spread of Coronavirus? Are we thinking after the shut down? Are we planning on this winter’s Coronavirus? Are we taking great care of our most sensitive population while encouraging healthy and resilient citizens to keep the city moving?


I’d love to know.

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