How can stakeholder engagement and mini-publics better inform the use of data for pandemic response?

The New York City Data Assembly demonstrated the value and potential of deliberation

Stefaan G. Verhulst


By Andrew Zahuranec, Andrew Young and Stefaan G. Verhulst

“What does the public expect from data-driven responses to the COVID-19 pandemic? And under what conditions?” These are the motivating questions behind The Data Assembly, a recent initiative by The GovLab at New York University Tandon School of Engineering — an action research center that aims to help institutions work more openly, collaboratively, effectively, and legitimately.

Image from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on Flickr

Launched with support from The Henry Luce Foundation, The Data Assembly solicited diverse, actionable public input on data re-use for crisis response in the United States. In particular, we sought to engage the public on how to facilitate, if deemed acceptable, the use of data that was collected for a particular purpose for informing COVID-19. One additional objective was to inform the broader emergence of data collaboration — through formal and ad hoc arrangements between the public sector, civil society, and those in the private sector — by evaluating public expectation and concern with current institutional, contractual, and technical structures and instruments that may underpin these partnerships.

The Data Assembly used a new methodology that re-imagines how organisations can engage with society to better understand local expectations regarding data re-use and related issues. This work goes beyond soliciting input from just the “usual suspects”. Instead, data assemblies provide a forum for a much more diverse set of participants to share their insights and voice their concerns.

This article is informed by our experience piloting The Data Assembly in New York City in summer 2020. It provides an overview of The Data Assembly’s methodology and outcomes and describes major elements of the effort to support organisations working on similar issues in other cities, regions, and countries.

Engaging with the public and diverse experts

To solicit a diversity of input, The Data Assembly methodology involved a multi-staged process for engaging key stakeholders in the data reuse ecosystem combined with a “mini-public” of New Yorkers. First proposed by the political scientist Robert Dahl in 1989, a mini-public is a broadly representative assembly of people that learns and collaborates through facilitated deliberations to develop collective recommendations for policymakers. When brought together, this group can learn from one another, deliberate on complex topics, and share their opinions in order to identify local concerns and inform decision-making.

As part of The Data Assembly, The GovLab assembled held three deliberations (two stakeholder groups and one mini-public), each focused around specific types of expertise. Each group addressed questions related to data re-use and the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as what types of objectives for data re-use are most appropriate and potentially impactful and which local actors should be engaged in such efforts.

The first group involved New York-based data holders and policymakers. Identified through research and coordination with partners at the New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library, this group included leaders in New York City’s government and local and international companies. Their participation provided perspective from those directly involved in forming data re-use arrangements.

The second involved civic rights and advocacy organisations. These New York-based professionals included individuals involved in promoting privacy and free speech as well as the rights of marginalised groups. This cohort gave perspectives from groups with unique or prominent concerns related to responsible data practices.

Finally, The Data Assembly included a mini-public of New Yorkers themselves. The mini-public deliberation featured 55 New York City residents, identified through a random sampling methodology. This group was recruited by and worked through Remesh, an online research and public engagement platform designed to facilitate input from large groups. Starting with their existing pool of contacts interested in participating in online focus groups, Remesh populated the New York City residents mini-public with a focus on ensuring diversity across age, gender, income, and borough of residence. The Remesh platform then provided these participants with the ability to respond to polling questions, free-form text prompts, and to indicate their reaction to the contributions of their peers.

We held three deliberations to ensure that: 1) each engagement was aligned with participants’ level of familiarity and experience with key issues and concepts; 2) to avoid having the most experienced or expert voices dominate the conversation, and 3) to allow room for participants representing certain communities or constituencies often hard to reach through regular mini-publics to share their perspectives. This three-pronged approach might not have been necessary had COVID-19 not necessitated remote engagement. In a traditional citizens’ assembly, deliberations occur over an extended period across multiple in-person sessions and engagements, providing more opportunity to ensure participants use similar vocabulary, all voices have an opportunity to participate meaningfully, and a diversity of perspectives and experiences are brought to the table.

Using real-world examples as prompts

Each stakeholder deliberation and mini-public focused its deliberations using real-world examples as prompts. These prompts referred to as “Data Re-Use Exhibits,” included three exhibits of data re-use to support COVID-19.

Summary description of a Data Re-Use Exhibit focused on mobility data analysis

To avoid introducing bias, the exhibits did not include the names of specific companies or organisations. Rather, they described possible scenarios and practices. The first example, relating to telecommunications data, asked participants to consider whether governments should use data collected from mobile phones to track patterns of movement and assess the effectiveness of lockdown measures. The second exhibit, relating to consumer data, looked at an analysis of spending patterns by a credit card company to understand regional patterns of economic recovery. The final exhibit focused on 311 data, asked whether city departments should be able to collect and publish data about complaints related to a failure to adhere to mask-wearing or social distancing.

Overview of key considerations regarding the Data Re-Use Exhibit on mobility data analysis

By focusing on the instances in which organisations are already using data, participants were able to gain a sense of the broader context of data re-use, and ground their feedback in relation to real-world, tangible activities. Participants explained their concerns, expectations, and opportunities in data-driven responses to COVID-19, providing the research team with a chance to draw out actionable insights.


The Data Assembly allowed The GovLab to compile insights and recommendations into a report, titled The Responsible Data Re-Use Framework. This document identifies if, when, and how the re-use of personal data can be aligned with people’s expectations and societal values. It includes specific takeaways based on the New York deliberation — noting that participants across the three deliberations tolerated surveillance for public health purposes so long as that use benefited the public and subject to public oversight — and recommendations on project design.

The report also highlights five core recommendations: matching urgency with accountability; supporting and expanding data literacy; centering equity; engaging legitimate, local actors; and developing positions for responsible data re-use.

Our experience with the New York City Data Assembly demonstrated the value and potential of the mini-public methodology. By using mini-publics to engage with small cohorts, organisations can promote more sophisticated deliberations around the use of data, responding to the concerns of additional stakeholders. As The GovLab prepares to launch The Data Assembly in other cities, it encourages organisations to create similar spaces to allow for the collection of feedback and the development of legitimate, inclusive policies.

Stefaan Verhulst is Co-Founder and Chief Research and Development Officer of the Governance Laboratory @NYU (GovLab) where he is building an action-research foundation on how to transform governance using advances in science, data and technology.

Andrew Young is The GovLab’s knowledge director, where he leads research efforts focusing on the impact of technology on governance and institutional decision-making.

Andrew J. Zahuranec is a research fellow at The GovLab, an action research center at New York University. He is responsible for studying how advances in science and technology can improve governance.

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