Opening Data is Not Enough: How to Become a Human-Driven City

A Q&A with Sunlight Foundation’s Open Cities Communications Officer Becca Warner

What Works Cities
Sep 10, 2019 · 9 min read

By Ivy Gilbert

One of the crucial first steps to creating a local government that works for residents is for cities to publish their information and data for anyone to access, but the truth is that open datasets are only going to drive impact if residents know where to find them and how to use them.

As a part of the Sunlight Foundation, the Open Cities team is dedicated to training local governments on how to improve transparency and resident participation by providing technical assistance on open data and community engagement strategies. And for Becca Warner, Sunlight Foundation Open Cities’ Communications Officer, open data policies and community engagement are inseparable.

A storyteller by trade, Becca is often on the ground supporting cities as they learn how to use the Sunlight Foundation Open Cities team’s Tactical Data Engagement (TDE) method to see tangible results from resident-centered open data projects. From conducting user research to co-designing and implementing prototypes, she has seen first-hand the benefits of human-driven open data.

We caught up with Becca to learn more about how cities are using the Sunlight Open Cities TDE method to better understand the needs of their specific communities, why resident engagement is paramount, and the benefits of joining the Sunlight Foundation for its upcoming 8-week technical assistance sprint — Building a Resident-Centered Open Data Program—starting on October 28th.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What’s the value of having publicly available data?

I think the assumption is that open data only benefits the public, but in reality, opening data has benefits for the entire democratic ecosystem. Many times there can be strained relationships between residents and governments that I think often boils down to a lack of two-way communication. Making government data available outside of city hall supports the rebuilding of trust between communities and their governments, and that’s something I think is really important in this era.

How can cities work to make these open data sets easily accessible to residents?

It’s crucial for cities to recognize that open data is the first step because it serves as a means for residents to understand what their government is doing and gives residents the ability to hold them accountable. But having the data out there on an open data portal or website is not enough; cities have to work with existing community partners that possess the technical knowledge to be the conduit for helping the wider community activate data.

And data can be anything — it can be super simple and accessible to all kinds of people, but then there will always be certain data that people won’t know how to analyze on their own. That is why we rely on partnerships within the community that are well versed in using the data to advocate for themselves and for others. These community partners act as translators and make sure the information is communicated effectively to those who may not have the same degree of technical expertise. The next step is to then invest in these community members and let them guide what’s added to the portal and the priority data sets.

We believe in data-driven governments but we also believe in human-driven governments. None of this works unless you know who you are doing it for.

How would you explain the Sunlight Foundation’s Tactical Data Engagement (TDE) method to someone who is looking to make their government more transparent and resident-driven?

The TDE is a guiding framework that data providers both inside and outside city hall can use to investigate and catalyze community use of data. It’s Sunlight Open Cities’ way of supporting local government as they aim to make data public in a meaningful way to address residents’ issues and solve local problems.

The TDE method itself is a four-step process which includes user research and community outreach. Exercises like creating user personas and use cases can turn that research into a tool that cities can utilize to help visualize the needs of their residents and can show a city a picture of the issues that the people in their community are facing, how they are currently engaging with data, and what kind of information they are looking for.

From there, the TDE method’s scope narrows down to an actionable goal. At the end of the process, it’s our hope that cities have gained the experience to continue using the framework without our support to tackle a plethora of issues beyond their initial focus.

[Create your own user personas and use cases in the Roadmap to Informed Communities.]

A great example of a city using the TDE framework is in Norfolk, Virginia. Norfolk took a broad-reaching issue like flooding — an issue that they had been coming up with new strategies to deal with for decades — and used the TDE method to identify the data that residents who are working against flooding would find the most useful. We then helped to co-design a prototype to address specific issues related to flooding in the city. In this case, the prototype focused on opening flood gauge data to help researchers better understand long-term tidal flooding trends. In the longer term, the City, Norfolk’s residents, and the open data team will work together to find further important and innovative applications for open data to address more flooding & resiliency related use cases established through our engagement.

[Learn how Norfolk, VA is using the TDE method and how your city can too in this case study.]

Stakeholder engagement is one of the best practices outlined in the What Works Cities Assessment and an attribute of Certified cities. How does a robust resident engagement strategy contribute to building a well-managed, data-driven city?

When we were first starting out, we thought having open data and transparency were the primary factors that build trust between governments and residents. We now know that community and resident engagement is actually key to fostering trust and accountability. So, for example, through our TDE method, we are hoping to build relationships and leverage the expertise of the community and the lived experiences of residents to inform the work that local governments are doing. It’s about using resident feedback to guide city action on releasing and publishing data and building tools that the community can use to address the issues they identified.

Only by working together with community members can cities ensure they are doing the most effective job possible: Community engagement provides that crucial context.

What is one of the most common challenges cities face when doing this work?

Often times, we are deeply engaged with cities through the initial TDE process, guiding them through design research and providing them with a report that will outline all the potential opportunities to publish open data to address community needs. But when we move forward with a prototype, it’s really on the city from that point forward to continue the work, to make an impact in the community, and then continue on their own. Some of the biggest challenges that cities face are around sustainability and making sure governments understand the importance of this work — and prioritize it

Do you have any advice for cities on how to work through these challenges?

The first is to pass an open data policy that is robust, preferably in the form of legislation that is stable and not likely to be overturned. Passing an open data policy ensures the program’s longevity in case whoever is spearheading the project leaves the city — because that happens. Second, cities should have staff dedicated to maintaining open data portals who can own a city’s open data program so that the work does not get pushed to the sidelines.

Another big piece of advice that I have for cities wanting to continue this work is that collaborating across departments is key. Sometimes collaboration is not easy because departments often have their own sets of priorities. But having a working group between departments that is able to communicate about open data over a long enough period will be fruitful for everyone involved and help keep the human component of open data foregrounded. Internal stakeholder engagement is just as important as external if you want to keep this work going.

If the TDE framework were an animal, what kind of animal would it be and why?

TDE is an intelligent way of doing things and is incredibly adaptable to city and community needs, so I would say that the TDE method is like an orca whale because orcas are more intelligent and adaptable than people typically give them credit for!

Who would benefit from joining the Building a Resident-Centered Open Data Program sprint?

Sprints are accessible to people from all degrees of experience. Ideally, anyone who works in or on the open data portal, Chief Innovation Officers, and Open Data Officers should prioritize signing up for our October sprint. But even cities that don’t have dedicated offices for open data or even members of IT would find this training useful when it comes to informing updates on their open data programs. Anyone who is interested in seeing their city do better and has the drive and determination to attempt to effect change should register. We would love to have you.

Do you have any advice for cities that are looking to get started?

Besides sign up for the October sprint? Learn as much as you can from other cities! Our Roadmap to Informed Communities has case studies and tools that show cities how to conduct effective user research for open data, how to effectively collaborate with communities around projects and is built as a guiding resource to take cities through the process of learning how to do this work on their own.

[Explore the Roadmap to Informed Communities]

The other step that any city could take is to complete a What Works Cities Assessment and ultimately pursue What Works Cities Certification to gain a better understanding of what it means to be a data-driven well-managed city. Completing an Assessment makes cities eligible for technical assistance with partners like the Sunlight Foundation and can help staff implement strategies in their own cities.

And, while there’s so much that cities can explore on their own, it starts with asking how they can better engage their communities. We always ask cities when we first start working with them: “How are you currently engaging communities?” And a lot of the time the answer is “we really don’t know how,” or “we’ll host a forum every once and a while.” So, if more cities can start to understand how they engage communities on their own, it can go a long way in making data work impactful and resident-centered to ensure that there are positive outcomes for the community.

We believe in data-driven governments but we also believe in human-driven governments. None of this works unless you know who you are doing it for.

Ivy Gilbert is a marketing and communications assistant for What Works Cities.

What Works Cities Certification — the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government — emphasizes the importance of stakeholder engagement. Has your city completed a What Works Cities Assessment? If so, you’re eligible to join the Sunlight Cities Open Cities team for their upcoming sprint on building a resident-centered open data program. Register by October 27th, 2019.

Let’s Chat about Data

Get insider tips from the front lines of data-driven transformation in this Q&A series with city champions and What Works Cities experts

What Works Cities

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Helping leading cities across the U.S. use data and evidence to improve results for their residents. Launched by @BloombergDotOrg in April 2015.

Let’s Chat about Data

Get insider tips from the front lines of data-driven transformation in this Q&A series with city champions and What Works Cities experts

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