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This Map of New Orleans Might Save a Life

(Photo: Daniel X. O'Neill)

Where do ambulance drivers park when they’re waiting for a call? And how close are they to the areas where calls are likeliest to originate?

The City of New Orleans wanted to know. Between 2014 and 2016, the city saw a 12 percent spike in emergency medical calls. During the same period, EMS teams struggled to keep up with demand, with the portion of calls being addressed in less than 12 minutes falling from 80 percent to 72 percent. But by adjusting where ambulances idle between calls—based on both traffic patterns and the volume of emergency calls—the city was able to reduce response times during the night shift and improve service to two of its worst-served neighborhoods.

That’s according to a new report from Results for America, a nonprofit that tries to help local governments create evidence-based solutions to urban problems. The group invites local government leaders to participate in fellowships that put them in contact with their peers in other cities, to exchange ideas for improving government work. The New Orleans case study was one of four that the group published in early January, highlighting the work of Results for America fellows in various cities. The group also reported on work in Atlanta, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, and plans to release a dozen more case studies this year.

“Our goal in writing these case studies is to focus on policymakers who are interested in using data and evidence but don’t necessarily know how to get started,” says Maia Jachimowicz, the vice president for evidence-based policy implementation at Results for America.

The group has 16 fellows from 16 cities. Both the current and former directors of New Orleans’ Office of Performance and Accountability have been in the program, Jachimowicz said. The idea for analyzing ambulance response times was solicited from city staff, she says.

“To improve response times and decrease geographic disparity, the Office of Performance and Accountability team focused on two variables: how EMS ambulances were selected to address a 911 call and where they were stationed after responding to this call to wait for the next one,” according to the report.

The Office mapped five years’ worth of 911 calls, and identified 100 locations from which ambulances could respond to them within 8 minutes, according to the report. Then it used another program to find places where ambulances could cover the most calls most quickly. But data alone didn’t suffice: Some of the top locations identified through the analysis were in residential areas, where ambulance drivers don’t park, and the initial recommendations for placement would have required drivers to constantly shuffle between locations after calls to optimize response times. After discussing the work with drivers, the office created two printable maps of parking locations that help serve the city equitably and efficiently. The result is improved response times on the night shift and substantially faster service to Algiers and New Orleans East, where responses have historically been the slowest.

The two maps, one for daytime (left) and one for nighttime (right), were based off of five years of 911 calls.

Jachimowicz says that the city has been on the forefront of data-based problem-solving under Mayor Mitch Landrieu, whose term is ending this year. Which is not to say that it has solved all of its problems, of course. In fact, the city—where locals joke that NOPD stands for Not Our Problem, Dude—has been struggling to improve its notoriously slow police response time for several years. But she says the city has done a good job of keeping data analysis at the front of its work.

“New Orleans has been a leader in the use of data analytics for a while,” Jachimowicz says. “They’ve really built a pretty sophisticated system in the way that they do this work.”

The report also highlights tips for replicating the work in other cities, including always leaning on direct knowledge of practitioners. It also says that the project shows that equity and efficiency don’t have to be at odds, and in fact “data and evidence can be used to enhance both simultaneously.”

Other cases studies highlight Baltimore’s turn to a budgeting system based on improving outcomes in the areas that the city identifies as top priorities, Atlanta’s staff-centered approach to performance management, and Philadelphia’s use of behavioral science to improve participation in city programs and services.

Jachimowicz says that Results for America plans to release 12 more case studies for the rest of its cities this year. In promoting the work, the group hopes to show cities that data can be used to address all sorts of local challenges.

“There are many different approaches that a city or county or even a governor can take to doing this work,” Jachimowicz says. “It shouldn’t be too scary. Our end goal is that policymakers across the country are adopting the practices that they’re seeing from these leaders.”