Ron Galperin backs Big Data to improve City Hall

Controller Ron Galperin is City Hall’s new numbers guy, hoping to bring the era of Big Data to the creaking bureaucracy. His plan is to use computers to analyze huge amounts of information as is now done by police departments, baseball teams, other businesses and, infamously, the National Security Agency.

“We are the keeper of vast amounts of data about the services, about everything having to do with salaries, financial details of the departments,” Galperin told me in his office on the third floor of City Hall East as he settled into his elected job as the city’s fiscal watchdog. “There are many ways to manipulate that data to provide us with a wealth of knowledge to make the city much more efficient.”

Success now goes to those who have the intellectual capacity and computer resources needed to sort and analyze vast amounts of information, now known as Big Data.

For example, in the old days, most political reporters making predictions on races operated on gut instinct and “institutional memory.” That changed when baseball statistics expert Nate Silver correctly predicted both the 2008 and 2012 presidential election results by compiling the many state polls from around the country, along with historical data, demographic information and other facts, and then subjecting this material to a kind of rigorous analysis possible only through sophisticated use of technology. 

President Barack Obama’s political team also collected voting records, analyzed consumer buying patterns, polling results, personal interviews and information from scores of sources, fed them into the latest computers and successfully targeted likely voters. The Los Angeles Police Department’s CompStat system blends cops’ daily incident reports with crime statistics, demographic information, neighborhood chatter, probation officer and emergency ward data, and much more. Computers analyze all of this, and area commanders are accountable for the results in weekly meetings. Potential danger areas are pinpointed.

Yet, such analysis is foreign to many parts of City Hall, where, as just one example, reservations for the parking garage are still done through telephone calls and faxes. Galperin, at 50 and with a varied career and experience on city advisory fiscal commissions, is eagerly accepting the challenge of updating the systems.

His father, born in Romania, was a cantor and rabbi descended from a long line of rabbis. His mother was born in Israel, and his father immigrated there. Both were veterans of the 1948 War of Independence, and both were opera singers. They immigrated to the United States, and Galperin was raised in St. Louis, where he graduated from yeshiva and Washington University. Moving to Los Angeles, he was a journalist, including writing freelance articles for the Los Angeles Times. He also graduated from Loyola Law School. As an attorney, he specialized in business and real estate law.

In college, he was a part-time cantor, a Hebrew school teacher, a bar and bat mitzvah coach, and taught in Sunday religious school. In Los Angeles, he has served as part-time cantor of Temple B’nai Emet of Montebello for 20 years. He is also married to a rabbi, Zachary Shapiro, who leads Temple Akiba of Culver City. Galperin is fluent in Hebrew and Yiddish, the language he used to converse with his grandparents.

Galperin says this varied background will help him as controller. “Judaism teaches us to ask questions and to study and enjoy and learn from other people,” he said. Also, the concept of tikkun olam, he said, has led him to think about “how do we make it a better world, to leave this place better than we found it.”

In journalism, “I learned to turn out a lot of copy,” he said. “That was the way to make a living.” Journalism also gave him the chance “to meet anyone you want to meet and ask them a lot of questions.”

And that’s similar to what he’ll have to do to make sense of the presently unconnected masses of data that flow into City Hall, in order to use it to recommend policy changes to Mayor Eric Garcetti and the L.A. City Council.

To illustrate what he is talking about, Galperin gave me a 17-page listing of special funds — outside the regular treasury or general fund — from which public dollars flow in and out. Special taxes, federal and state grants, fees and other revenue sources feed these funds. The money is used for neighborhood improvement, congestion reduction, parks and many other purposes. 

“Accounting for these special funds has to improve, “ Galperin said. “We [need to] have a clear sense of the money in and money out in every one of these funds.” He recalled how the city Department of Transportation lost track of $42.6 million in special funds that should have been transferred to the city treasury — one of the causes of the city’s fiscal crisis earlier this year.

In a modern Big Data system, every dollar in such funds would be tracked on a daily basis, along with every other city expenditure. They would be organized in a computer system, along with daily spending and income, fluctuations in pension costs and tax receipts, as well as, perhaps, even possible changes in the weather and daily traffic patterns, all done in real time. With this, the mayor and the City Council could measure the performance of department heads and their subordinates and anticipate how resources should be allocated.

Officials will likely resist it, as did some of the cops when confronted with CompStat.

But as Galperin told me, Big Data has arrived “and there is an incredible opportunity … we are seeing this in other local governments as well as in the private sector. How do you take that data and learn from it?”

This isn’t headline-making stuff. But it’s important and a good reason to keep your eye on the former journalist and cantor now occupying the controller’s office.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).