A Better Way to Release Your City’s Data

By Chris Bousquet • May 23, 2017

Open data has immense potential to catalyze creative problem solving by practitioners and policymakers, but troves of vaguely-labeled spreadsheets will do little to inspire interest or facilitate innovative solutions.

To unlock the value of open data, governments have begun to launch open datasets in themed releases, which contain data and additional context about a specific policy area. These open datasets have two distinct advantages: a more useful and navigable platform for users and better marketing appeal to practitioners focused on the policy area.

Making Open Data User-Friendly

Creating a data hub for a specific audience allows developers to tailor their design to the needs of those who will use it. In developing its NYC Business Atlas—a mapping tool that unites business-related datasets to help entrepreneurs make informed decisions— New York focused on the needs of small business owners.

NYC Business Atlas
NYC Business Atlas

The Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) partnered with the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) to conduct a great deal of user research on New York’s small business community in order to ensure that the NYC Business Atlas’s design was user-centered. According to Lindsay Mollineaux, Deputy Chief Analytics Officer for MODA, “Some of the needed data in designing the Atlas was obvious to us, but the question was what is useful to entrepreneurs versus information overload? SBS served as our subject matter experts who interfaced with actual entrepreneurs (for example, people might come to them about opening a bakery) and could use the Atlas to directly serve these needs.”

As an example of the insights gained from user research, MODA originally wanted to convert the city’s business and demographic data into scores for different geographic areas. However, user feedback indicated that entrepreneurs preferred less-aggregated data, asking for the underlying information rather than comprehensive scores. The Atlas now contains disaggregated raw data, allowing users to do their own analysis.

Much of the data in the NYC Business Atlas had already existed on New York’s open data portal and was therefore already available to small business owners. However, the data was fragmented and lacked context and tools that would be particularly useful to New York’s entrepreneurs. By releasing small business data as a themed portal and involving entrepreneurs in the design process, MODA created a tool that was much more accessible and useful for entrepreneurs.

Energizing Developers, Residents, and Practitioners

In addition to offering better usability, themed open data releases have a communications advantage over general releases in that governments can advertise them to residents, practitioners, and advocates involved in the issue area targeted by the release. It can be difficult to market general open data releases to users because the policy goals and applications of the data may not be clear. On the other hand, governments can frame themed open data releases as efforts to inform residents about or improve government performance in some particular issue area, inspiring users to access and build on the data.

When releasing the Opportunity Project—an initiative to provide curated federal and local datasets on the theme of economic and social opportunity—the federal government tailored its communications towards social justice advocates and practitioners. The Opportunity Project website frames its data portal as a tool that “is transforming government data into digital tools that create more just and equitable communities and help people solve problems in their everyday lives.” Moreover, in a talk at SxSW announcing the project, President Barack Obama said, “The reason I'm here really is to recruit all of you…how can we start coming up with new platforms, new ideas, new approaches across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the big problems that we're facing today?” And, in order to engage practitioners in even more specific areas, six federal agencies including the Department of Education, Department of Transportation, and Office of the Surgeon General defined key priority areas for users to address.

The result has been the creation of a number of tools by non-profits, companies, and residents that improve access to opportunity. For example, education nonprofits GreatSchools and EducationCities partnered to create an “Opportunity Dashboard” that uses Opportunity Project college readiness data from the Department of Education’s CRDC to measure gaps in educational opportunities across student groups. In the realm of medicine, medical research community the Open Medicine Institute teamed up with Crisis Text Line to create “TextHelp,” a tool that uses de-identified VA Health System mental health data to assess risks in patients.

Opportunity Dashboard
Opportunity Dashboard

An additional advantage of such a narrowly tailored data release is the opportunity to directly engage with intended users in order to drive adoption. When developing the NYC Business Atlas, MODA’s research indicated that many entrepreneurs go to their local library to find information on how to start a new business. Knowing this, MODA trained library staff to introduce the application to small business owners.

In more urgent circumstances, governments can also use themed open data releases to inspire practitioners to develop swift solutions. In the days leading up to Hurricane Sandy, for example, government technologists in New York and New Jersey organized themed data releases that included information on evacuation zones, shelters, food distribution centers, warming centers, and recovery centers. This data enabled developers to create tools to help residents find help during the storm and, later, aid in recovery. For example, grassroots disaster relief network Occupy Sandy created a map displaying volunteer locations across the city, allowing able residents to find ways to help and showing those in need where they could find supplies and shelter. New York City estimates that the release and applications it inspired allowed employees to serve ten times as many individuals as they could have without it.

Occupy Sandy Map
Occupy Sandy Map

In other cases, governments leverage themed open data releases not necessarily to motivate practitioners to create tools, but rather to increase awareness and political action in the policy area targeted by the release. In other words, themed open data releases are not only means of galvanizing the creation of tools, but serve as tools for change themselves.

The City of Austin released an open dataset and public dashboard on sustainability to track the city’s progress on stated goals and increase awareness of the issue among residents, practitioners, and city departments. In its press release, the city framed the dashboard as a call to action for residents and municipal employees alike: “Beyond guiding City actions, we also hope that the community will use this information to consider how they can support sustainability goals for Austin.”

Austin Sustainability Performance Dashboard
Austin Sustainability Performance Dashboard

Lewis Leff, senior business process consultant with the Office of Sustainability, said, “It’s starting that conversation with the community. We want folks to see the numbers and have them reach out with interest. Having the conversation is exactly what we’re after…Understanding, educating and engaging departments helps to further enhance what we want to accomplish.” The release brings specific attention to sustainability and enhances understanding of the issue in a way that a general open data release would be unlikely to accomplish.

Even if cities have already released or prepared for release large troves of data, they can still benefit from grouping and releasing data in themed portals. By creating better human-centered tools via user research and engaging subject-matter experts, governments can use themed releases to transform stagnant data into action.

About the Author

Chris Bousquet

Chris Bousquet is a PhD student in philosophy at Syracuse University. Prior to that, Chris was a Research Assistant/Writer for Data-Smart City Solutions. Chris holds a bachelor’s degree from Hamilton College.