Guilford County government is going to school and getting wonky – not wonky as in “crooked, off-center, askew,” but wonky in this way:

The county, in collaboration with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) and MetroLab Network, is taking a very deep academic dive into numbers, stats and other data in an attempt to solve problems facing the county. Homelessness and substance abuse are the first two targets of the new program, but plans are to expand the initiative to address many other county issues in the future.

The Guilford County/UNCG partnership is only the fifth county-university collaboration in the country that’s been accepted into the MetroLab Network – a program launched in September 2015 with 21 initial city-university pairings as part of the White House’s Smart Cities Initiative. That network of partnerships is designed to use analysis of “big data” to provide brand new – often tech-based – solutions to problems faced by local governments. The federally funded Smart Cities Initiative program that includes the MetroLab Network was begun under the Obama administration in 2015 with $160 million in funding, and currently some support comes from private partners such as the MacArthur Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Guilford County officials say the new program could have wide-ranging implications for economic development in this area. It could also, they say, save lives and money by improving the county’s services and making them more efficient.

According to county officials, the MetroLab Network affiliates – and the network’s national support from some of the world’s finest colleges and universities – could make Guilford County a candidate for major grant money the county otherwise wouldn’t have a chance of attracting. The solutions arrived at under the new initiative could also become national models of best practices and raise Guilford County’s profile in that way as well.

MetroLab’s strategy is to form relationships where the university serves as a research and development arm of the local government, and that local government, in turn, serves as “a test-bed” for data-driven approaches and technological solutions thought up by the academics. The faculty and students at the participating universities get access to real-world laboratories and have a chance to test the tools and programs they develop.

MetroLab Network members research, and often deploy, technology-based solutions for challenges facing cities and counties across the country. For instance, the City of Pittsburgh, with the help of university researchers, used data in fire analysis studies to predict where fires were most likely to occur next. That enabled the city to allocate its resources appropriately and take preventative steps by, for instance, increasing the number of inspections in places where fires were most likely to occur. To take another example, as part of the MetroLab program, the City of Columbus, working with the University of Ohio, was able to help visually impaired people find their way safely around the city through the use of “smart canes” that react to a special coating on street and sidewalk paint. In another MetroLab initiative, the City of Atlanta used data from academic studies to reduce traffic accidents through the creation of an intelligently synched system of traffic lights, crossing lights and phone apps meant to reduce congestion and accidents by redirecting traffic patterns and by changing traffic light timing on the fly.

Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson said he’s “thrilled” Guilford County will be part of the national MetroLab network. He said the program should, among other things, strengthen the relationship between Guilford County and UNCG. He added that he believes the program will “generate real benefits for Guilford County.”

Guilford County Budget Department Director Mike Halford, whose department is handling much of the heavy lifting in this effort, said he believes this could be a major step forward for Guilford County.

“What I think is important now is that it connects us up with the broader network of universities, counties and cities, and we’re all dealing with the same things,” Halford said. “I think this allows us to leverage those analytical relationships with all those other universities – some of the best in the country.”

He said it’s essentially an entire network of people trying to do the smart thing and the right thing.

Halford said universities in the network get something they want badly as well: More data about county operations and much faster feedback on whether solutions are working or not.

He said that private companies looking to relocate may also consider that information very valuable. With information feedback available, Guilford County may become an ideal community for companies looking to get better feedback on how a product is performing.

“I would like to say it gives us kind of an opportunity to differentiate this area because we will have good data,” Halford said. “Companies would have a better understanding of the market and would have more immediate feedback of what happens in the market.”

He said that, by participating in the program, Guilford County now has its name next to the names of major cities and world-renowned universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of California-Berkeley.

Halford also said the UNCG partnership is just the start of potential collaborations in this area.

“Now that we’ve got it here, we’d like to extend it out so that [NC] A&T [State University] becomes a part of it, and High Point University if they want to,” he said.

He added that some cities may join as well.

“We hope to extend it to Greensboro and High Point and some towns, because all of that has to be connected somehow,” Halford said.

According to Halford, cities already in the program provide data for many things like traffic patterns, but counties have an entirely different set of data to explore, such as that related to human services.

“It will help in how you tackle these big things like incarceration rates, foster care issues and social services,” Halford said.

Homelessness created by evictions is one of the first issues that will be addressed by the new MetroLab collaboration in Guilford County. Academics will analyze Sheriff’s Department documents, court system records and other eviction-related data to see if those can be reduced in this area.

“Nobody wants eviction,” Halford said, adding that taking the data and applying academic research may provide innovative real-world solutions to the problem of homelessness.

“You’re not going to solve these problems without data – and without understanding that root cause of what’s going on,” he said.

UNCG officials are very enthusiastic about the program’s prospects as well.

“We are excited about this partnership and the immense potential it holds for the future,” said UNCG Chancellor Franklin D. Gilliam Jr. “By leveraging our collective resources, we are able to fast-track positive outcomes for the UNCG community and Guilford County. As the largest public university in the Triad, we are committed to sharing our research, technology and innovation to enhance the place we call home.”

Jason Jones, the analytics and innovation manager in the Guilford County budget office who’s been overseeing the implementation of much of the program for the county, said he thinks it could make a big difference.

“I do think it’s pretty cool,” Jones said. “You have this intellectual collision of practitioners and academics.”

He added the new word for those making the rounds among MetroLab members is “pracademics.”

Jones said UNCG makes for a natural partner in the initiative since Guilford County and the university have a history of working together. He said the program Guilford County Solution to the Opioid Problem (GCSTOP) is one the county and UNCG have been working on together.

Currently, the MetroLab Network members are working on over 100 research, development and deployment projects related to things like improving transportation and water systems, reducing energy needs for cities, advancing health and public safety goals and using data to improve human services.

Ben Levine, executive director of MetroLab Network, said that the network is thrilled to have Guilford County and UNCG as new members.

“Their collaboration with our extensive national network of cities and universities will accelerate progress throughout Guilford County on many of its priorities,” he said.