Danielle Fulmer Grey

By Danielle Fulmer • May 8, 2017

Danielle Fulmer is the Director of Business Analytics at the City of South Bend.

Since launching its open data portal in August 2013, South Bend, IN has published datasets on topics ranging from finance to code enforcement. Like many cities, South Bend was eager to share data for the purposes of transparency as well as the anticipated social and economic gains. In 2013, McKinsey projected that open data had the potential to generate over $13 billion in economic benefits across seven sectors, and the heart of open data is driving debate, advocacy and accountability. Cities may be better positioned to reap these rewards than state and federal agencies – local governments provide data on services that offer clear opportunities for feedback, since they are of direct interest to our residents and their daily lives.

However, our relatively passive approach of publishing data has shifted the responsibility too far onto the public, which provides us with a limited audience for open data and an underwhelming impact. At its heart, this is a question of inclusion and interest. Many cities have tried to bridge the divide between access and impact by collaborating with groups like Code for America on data analysis and app development, which is an important step forward. But the truth is, not every resident will learn to code, and this approach has unnecessarily left many voices on the fringes. The Sunlight Foundation admits that the movement from access to "substantive collaboration" has been slow, with much more work to date on the technical and legal aspects of policy and program design than on resident engagement.

The next stage of open data is expanding what cities share and providing context and tools to make open data more inclusive and attractive, and therefore more impactful. This shift requires us to recall the movement’s roots in open government and to retain a share of the responsibility for what happens once data is accessible. This is not meant to water down open data at all, but to make the conversation much richer, more vibrant, and more in sync with its objectives.

In South Bend, we are striving towards this by working on three pieces of the open data experience:

  1. Context: Make it clearer what the data means, how it is collected, and how it can be interpreted. Provide space to think about how data informs decision making and policy, the pieces of the story that are not machine-readable.
  2. Tools:  Make it easier than ever to interact with and manipulate the data. Recognize that not everyone is a data scientist or a developer, and provide tools like those used by decision makers.
  3. Process Transparency: Provide insights into the process of evidence-based policy making and continuous improvement.

In South Bend, we are following the lead of cities like Los Angeles in launching issue-specific, interactive transparency hubs that bring together all types of transparency-related documents on a priority subject in a centralized and easily navigable space, as well as analytical tools that assist with visualization and contextualization. The City of South Bend’s recently-launched first transparency hub focuses on policing. The site is meant to anticipate and respond to questions that follow the release of such datasets on topics like the complaints investigation process and use-of-force incidents.

The site includes interactive dashboards and maps, and apps that provide context and assist with data exploration. These tools make it easier for residents to see why the data matters to them, and can enable meaningful conversations. Another local lesson from our open data experience is that some of the transparency-related documents our residents want to see are not open data in the traditional sense at all. Transparency is about so much more than spreadsheets in machine-readable formats. Remembering that the roots of open data live in open government, and expanding access to other types of information, is key to driving an inclusive and meaningful conversation with our residents. Qualitative and textual information should be included when it is a key piece of the picture. Whenever possible, we strive to share both the final report or analysis, the raw data that informs it, and tools to explore the raw data further.

When we build centers of transparency that include both data and context, we also create an opportunity to engage with our residents in a conversation about evidence-based and data-driven policy. In this era of "alternative facts," local government is uniquely situated to show residents how we base policy in data and evidence, while also demonstrating the outcomes of this type of policymaking.  To be clear, this does not always mean that things work as we anticipate. A mature community that is pushing the limits of open data will be able to have a productive discussion on how evidence and data drive change and continuous improvement.

Indeed, unlike traditional open data portals, transparency hubs are not only about reporting back, but also enable us to better demonstrate progress and build accountability with all of our residents. They allow the public to see how the work of local government and policymaking fits in with the realities of their own lives. By giving all residents a fuller picture of how their government operates and the context and tools to interact with open data, we can leverage the foundation of open data access to expand to inclusive and impactful collaboration. A conversation about government data is only useful when we expand the range of voices participating in that discussion to include as much of our community as possible. We want to give residents both the context and data that empowers them to participate in a spirited and informed discussion about their city.