Harvard student to help Sioux Falls crack transit code

Nico Diaz, graduate student at Harvard University, works with the City of Sioux Falls as part of a fellowship. He stands for a portrait June 13, 2019 in Sioux Falls. (Erin Bormett/The Argus Leader via AP)

SIOUX FALLS (AP) – Mayor Paul TenHaken wants a City Hall that innovates its way out of persistent challenges like affordable housing, public transportation and government budgeting.

He's already created an Innovation and Technology Department, found room in the budget for an innovation manager and now is piloting a data analyst position to boot.

But the job isn't costing Sioux Falls taxpayers a single dime as Nico Diaz, the 29-year-old Harvard University graduate student, is on loan from the Bloomberg Institute, doing data analytics for the city on the Bloomberg's dime.

"He's been a huge breath of fresh air for perspectives because sometimes you get bogged down working on a project," said Jason Reisdorfer, director of the Sioux Falls Innovation and Technology Department.

Diaz, a Chilean national studying to get his master's degree in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, is in Sioux Falls as a part of a 10-week program through the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, of which TenHaken has been a part.

Right now, the Innovation and Technology Department's main effort is to retool the public transit system in a way that serves more citizens while operating more efficiently. Diaz is a part of that work, crunching numbers and building a financial model for whatever public transit eventually evolves into.

He's also working on creating what he called a "data-driven performance strategy" that will enable city officials to use metrics to measure if efforts to create more accessible and affordable housing are working.

"I wanted to come to a city that's already doing a lot of cool stuff with innovation," Diaz told the Argus Leader. "And Sioux Falls is, so that motivated me to come."

Not all cities that are a part of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative get the assistance of an embedded Bloomberg fellow. But Sioux Falls innovation manager Allie Hartzler said after that organization saw the work that the public transit study group is doing, they were impressed enough to send Diaz, she said.

"We're very lucky to have him," she said.

Creating a data analyst position is part of the long-term vision for the Innovation and Technology Department, Reisdorfer said. So having Diaz for 10 weeks – he'll head back to school in August – gives the city an opportunity to see how much value the position brings to the city government without having to use public resources.

"We were hopeful that he'd come in here and have really great insights into a data analyst type of position and now we're hoping he writes his own job description," Reisdorfer said.

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