NYC Council Testimony: Toward a Third Wave of Open Data for New York City

The GovLab
Dec 10, 2021 · 7 min read
The New York City Hall

On 10 December 2021, The GovLab’s Stefaan Verhulst testified before the New York City Council Committee on Technology as part of a hearing on “Open Data Compliance.” Below are his full remarks. A recording of his remarks can be found at the 55:00 minute mark here.

Written Testimony by Stefaan G. Verhulst, Co-Founder, The GovLab, Tandon School of Engineering, New York University

Before the New York City Council Committee on Technology

December 10, 2021

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Chairman Holden and distinguished members of the Committee, thank you for allowing me to appear virtually before you today. My name is Stefaan G. Verhulst, Co-Founder of and Chief Research and Development Officer at the Governance Lab (“The GovLab”) at New York University. The GovLab is an action research center whose mission is to strengthen the ability of institutions — including but not limited to governments — and people to work more openly, collaboratively, effectively, and legitimately to make better decisions and solve public problems. We provide our advice and expertise to leaders and organizations around the world, including this committee, most recently in our testimony in January on the need to acquire a social license for smart city-data.

I would like to start by commending the efforts of the NYC Open Data Program, which are an example for cities around the world. We engage with cities and organizations worldwide and, just this past week, were told that the City of Guayaquil in Ecuador, one of our Open Data Policy Lab City Incubator program participants, used New York City’s open data as an inspiration for much of its work for its own open data platform. New York City is a leader in the municipal open data field. The world watches and replicates what this program does.

While the city’s work is commendable, we believe there is much work that city leaders can still do to improve lives, be transparent, and support action toward those issues that New Yorkers care most about. We would encourage New York City to continue its status as an international leader in innovation by initiating and embracing a Third Wave of Open Data.

The Third Wave of Open Data, a framework our Open Data Policy Lab developed in consultation with numerous open data leaders worldwide, comprises a set of actions and priorities that goes beyond the initial first wave focused on freedom of information, and the second wave that sought to establish a platform for data release. It involves an approach to open data not simply for the sake of opening data but to enable impactful and responsible re-use of data to tackle societal challenges and to provide for equity and opportunity, especially through inter-sectoral collaborations and partnerships. The Third Wave seeks to build upon the existing foundation of open data and integrate the following priorities that can increase the value of current programs:

  • Publish with purpose: it seeks to understand the demand side of open data, how people will consume and use the data released, and prioritizes action toward those areas that are urgent, impactful, and legitimate.
  • Initiate Data Collaboratives: it seeks to open both private and public sector data and enable partnership between a variety of actors and experts; and
  • Prioritize data rights and data responsibility.

For this committee’s consideration, we provide four recommendations for how the City of New York can improve its open data program to be a leader in the Third Wave and ensure that its open data program evolves at the pace necessary to meet the needs of its residents. These recommendations are not comprehensive but, rather, represent major priorities that the City could focus on to expand the impact of its current work.

These recommendations include:

1. Invest in Data Stewardship: Data stewards are organizational leaders or teams empowered to create public value by providing responsible access to data (and data expertise); identifying opportunities for cross-sector collaboration and responding proactively to external requests for functional access to data, insights, or expertise. They are groups or individuals active in both the public and private sector, promoting trust within and outside their organization. In its final report, the European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on Business-to-Government (B2G) Data Sharing noted the need for public and private sector organizations to establish data steward roles to enable responsible, accountable data sharing for the public interest.

Consistent with this idea, the NYC Open Data Program legally established Open Data Coordinators, existing agency staff members designated by each city agency to take on the additional responsibilities of (1) identifying and enabling the delivery of datasets to the open data portal, (2) develop their agency’s portion of the legally-mandated annual open data compliance report (3) liaising with the open data team at the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics and Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, (4) addressing public feedback on datasets, and (5) performing public outreach. New York’s decision to establish these liaisons is a laudable first step toward establishing a culture of data stewardship in New York City government. However we recommend that investment in agency-based open data capacity be increased by making these positions full-time open data stewards at the agency level. This will allow individuals to focus their full time and effort toward improving open data, identifying opportunities for collaboration, and engaging with the public.

2. Democratize Methods to Surface Demand: The NYC Open Data Program has a legally mandated public data request avenue through which the public can request that certain datasets be made public. While this is a valuable resource for those familiar with data and familiar with data the City of New York collects, it is a limited pathway to collect and identify the demand and needs that could be met via open data by other less data-literate communities.

We recommend that the NYC Open Data Program explore additional programs and processes to surface needs, questions and demands from New Yorkers, to then influence future data releases. We have found particular value in smarter crowdsourcing techniques. Our 100 Questions Initiative, for instance, uses practitioners who possess both relevant domain knowledge (such as on migration, gender, or disinformation) and data science expertise) to collaboratively draft important research questions and then uses public voting to prioritize which questions to focus action toward. Our Data Assembly — which we launched in partnership with New York and Brooklyn Public Library systems — assembled small broadly representative assemblies of stakeholders representing data holders, data users, and New York residents to learn from one another, deliberate on complex topics, and share their opinions in order to identify local concerns and inform decision-making as it related to data re-use for pandemic response and other crises. These three groups, mini-publics, produced insights that proved valuable in soliciting diverse, actionable public input on data re-use for crisis response in the United States that could inform a responsible data re-use framework.

3. Facilitate access to more non-governmental data: The NYC Open Data Program hosts a handful of non-governmental datasets. Creating a formalized pathway for hosting non-governmental datasets is part of the 10 year strategic plan for NYC Open Data. We recommend accelerating the responsible re-use of non-governmental datasets through the NYC open data platform and data collaboratives.

As COVID-19 and the NYC Recovery Data Partnership led by the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics demonstrates, there are missed uses and missed opportunities for impact when non-governmental datasets are not made more readily available for analysis. The City can easily make data more accessible for re-use by centralizing it in a common space. We recommend creating a policy about non-governmental datasets, developing a governance structure to manage them, and creating processes to handle those requests for that data.

4. Explore Opportunities at an Even More Localized Level: Finally, the Third Wave of Open Data identifies the need for increased investment in opening data at the subnational level. Given that New York City houses a population the size of many countries, the function of the NYC Open Data Program, in some respects, resembles more of a national-level open data program than a subnational one.

We recommend continued exploration of open data engagements at an even more localized level in New York City–continuing existing engagements such as Open Data Week, the Open Ambassador Program, and supporting data-driven efforts by community boards. There may be additional opportunities for research and pilots in this domain as well, new models that may be worth exploring through an open data application at a borough or community-board level in New York City. We would encourage city leaders to look at some recent efforts taken around the country to promote even more localized data re-use, such as Tulsa’s Urban Data Pioneers, Boston’s pilot of DTPR and San Jose’s Data Equity Framework.

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To ensure New York City embraces the Third Wave, my colleagues and I encourage city leaders to pursue these four actions: investing in data stewardship; democratizing methods to surface demand; hosting more non-governmental data; and exploring local localized opportunities. We believe these actions will allow New York to continue to excel and preserve its status as an international leader in open data.

Thank you for your time. I welcome any questions you might have.

Data Stewards Network

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