Podcast with the Sunlight Foundation’s Open Cities Storyteller: Putting Open Data to Work for your Community
“Open Data” feels like the buzzword that just won’t quit. It was popping up so much in client conversations and at conferences that we knew it was time to do a SAS Talk with Kim podcast on how open data policies are being implemented in cities and the opportunities to improve government services and strengthen the community.
We went straight to the source with the Sunlight Foundation’s Open Cities Storyteller (cool job title!) Alex Dodds.
At its core, the Sunlight Foundation is “committed to improving public access to public information by making it available to the public, online [through] civic technologies, open data, policy analysis and journalism.”
A KLA colleague also just attended an Open Data session at the TomTom Founders Festival in Charlottesville that included representatives from OpenGov, the City of Seattle and Results for America.
Open Data > Raw Data
The key theme in my chat with Alex and during that session was the balance between open data and raw data — the notion that it’s not enough to pass an open data policy and start publishing it. We heard two sayings that summed it up nicely:
“If you build it, they might not necessarily come.”
“You can lead a horse to data, but you can’t make him think.”
This goes way beyond asking someone in the IT department (though that is usually where open data responsibilities are housed) to just a pdf online or give access to a database. The Governing Magazine reporter who moderated the Charlottesville panel noted that when cities and companies want you to NOT find something, they just dump all the data in your lap (in the old days that was giving them the keys to a giant warehouse of boxes; today’s equivalent is pointing them to a massive website database or spreadsheet).
The open data we’re talking about — that can truly empower the community and make local governments not just more accountable but more effective — provides a roadmap. You have to curate and interpret the data, put it in context and use storytelling to foster what is called “data literacy.”
Open data typically covers things like car accidents, crime reports, 911 calls, construction permits, restaurant inspections, and service requests. When pieced together and put in historical context, data points of that nature can be life-changing for the community. It can inform major policies and programs, confirms assumption or turn conventional wisdom on its head.
Let The Sun Shine In
Of course there is an inherent challenge to open data: It can expose shortcomings and make people inside the local government feel vulnerable. Indeed, it often means a culture change that has to start at the top with leaders who embrace transparency.
As one panelist in Charlottesville said, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” By “lifting up the hood” you are showing accountability and building trust with the community. After all, if you don’t share the news that isn’t good, people will be skeptical when you share the good news. It proves you have nothing to hide. And it gives local governments new partners. You bring your community along on the journey, build a shared narrative and can work together to solve problems.
Open data can also pinpoint inequities, but the local government must connect the dots for the disparities to be addressed. One Charlottesville panelist cited an anecdote about ambulance response times in New Orleans. The basic gist was that the city used data to reposition EMTs around the city to ensure faster — and more equitable — response times. You can check out a full case study by Results for America.
So how do you get beyond the stacks of raw data to meaningful open data? Alex talked about the Sunlight Foundation’s Tactical Data Engagement 4-step, people-centered process:
- Find a general focus area by observing community information needs.
- Refine information use cases by interviewing stakeholders
- Design a plan by coordinating with target data users
- Implement an intervention by collaborating with actual users
The Sunlight Foundation describes the importance of Tactical Data Engagement this way:
“Cities across the United States are making public data more open and accessible to their residents. Mayors and city staff are improving their policies and technical offerings to make more and more information about how local governments function available online. These developments represent a sea-change in our societal norms and expectations about the public right to government information. We believe Tactical Data Engagement is the next step in that cultural movement toward transparency and accountability. While open data policies and portals are invaluable components of improving local governments’ outcomes, the ultimate goal of all government work — including open data — is to improve the day-to-day lives of the people in a community.”They are piloting this approach to helping people put data to use in Austin, TX, Norfolk, VA, and Madison, WI.
As we often note when discussing our Community Dashboard with cities, today we have easy access to mountains of data. How we choose to open that data up to our communities and turn it into compelling stories will determine the impact it can have.
Open Data Resources:
- Sunlight Foundation Open Cities
- Sunlight Foundation Tactical Data Engagement
- Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities
- The MIT Center for Civic Media
- Twitter: @alexgdodds @SunlightCities