Connecting open data to residents’ lives

Authors: Stephen Larrick and Katya Abazajian
Originally published on the Sunlight Foundation blog.

United States cities face a critical challenge when it comes to fulfilling the potential of open data: that of moving beyond the mere provision of access to data toward the active facilitation of stakeholder use of data in ways that bring about community impact. Sunlight has been researching innovative projects and strategies that have helped cities tackle this challenge head on. Today we’re excited to share a guide for our new approach to open data in U.S. cities–an approach we’re calling “Tactical Data Engagement,” designed to drive community impact by connecting the dots between open data, public stakeholders, and collaborative action.

Access is critical but we have more work to do

Many city leaders have realized that open data is a valuable innovation to bring to city hall, and have invoked the promise of a new kind of relationship between government and the people: one where government works with the public in new collaborative ways. City mayors, managers, council members, and other leaders are making commitments to this idea in the US, with over 60 US cities having adopted open data reforms since 2006, nearly 20 in 2016 alone–many with the help of the Sunlight team as part of our support of the What Works Cities initiative. While cities are building the public policy infrastructure for open data, they are also making technical advancements as municipal IT and innovation departments build or procure new open data portals and release more and more government datasets proactively online.

These developments are all positive–they represent a sea change in our societal norms and expectations about the public right to government information online–and Sunlight is proud of the work we’ve done to advance access to open data through legal and technical reforms. However, we’re writing now to say is that these developments alone are not enough. Portals and policies are critical infrastructure for the data-driven open government needed in the 21st century; but there has been and continues to be a disconnect between the rhetoric and promise of open data when compared to what it has meant in terms of practical reform. Let us be clear: the promise of open data is not about data on a website. The promise is for a new kind of relationship between government and the governed, one that brings about collaborative opportunities for impact. While many reforms have been successful in building an infrastructure of access, many have fallen short in leveraging that infrastructure for empowering residents and driving community change.

Announcing Tactical Data Engagement

In order to formulate an approach to help cities go further with their open data programs, Sunlight has been conducting an extensive review of the relevant literature on open data impact, and of the literature on approaches to community stakeholder engagement and co-creation (both civic-tech or open-data driven as well as more traditional). We drew key inspiration from the field of urban planning, where low-cost, and often temporary physical interventions in the built environment have helped reimagine a more participatory and iteratively co-created conception of the city, as well as from the field of design, where human-centered approaches have long been recognized as critical. We’ve been evaluating case studies at the local level and have even learned from efforts in the federal government like the The Opportunity Project or the Center for Open Data Enterprise’s Open Data Roundtables. We’ve been conducting interviews with experts and drawing from our own direct work supporting cities with open data.

The result so far is our “Tactical Data Engagement” Guide (still in beta) designed to address what we see as the the most critical challenge currently facing the open data movement: helping city open data programs build on a new infrastructure of access to facilitate the collaborative use of open data to empower residents and create tangible community impact.

And we’re not done yet. In the spirit of the collaborative approaches we recommend, we’ll be continuing to speak to experts and public officials in city government for the next few months to learn how to better adapt Tactical Data Engagement to fit cities’ needs.

Let us know what you think by reaching out to or by leaving a comment in the public Google Doc hereEnter your comments by May 1 to get your ideas into our first round of revisions. 

To fully meet their goals, cities need to turn their sights beyond access alone. Most open data initiatives, after all, aim for public stakeholders to use data productively. Cities want to do more with their data by enlisting the help of community actors, and, most importantly, they want open data to have an impact. An open data policy or portal on its own won’t necessarily bring out these goals. It’s clear cities need to go further. With Tactical Data Engagement we’ve laid out a process and begun to compile tactics that we hope will help them do just that. Check out the guide below.

Update (Aug. 2017): The “beta” version of our Tactical Data Engagement guide, shown below, has been revised based on community feedback. You can find the current official version here.

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