Pioneering Community Participation in Tulsa, Oklahoma

By Betsy Gardner • April 24, 2019

This article originally appeared as part of a paper on What Works Cities’ Certification program.

“Budget constraints are the mother of invention.”


Perhaps that’s a liberal interpretation of Plato’s quote, but then Plato never found himself beholden to expectant constituents in the middle of a budget cycle. Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum did. In June 2016, newly elected Mayor Bynum found himself locked into the existing yearly budget with a promise to deliver on: he had campaigned on a data-driven platform, but now found himself fiscally stymied. Or as James Wagner, former Chief of Performance Strategy and Innovation, put it, city hall was wondering: “How are we going to deliver … without the resources to do it?”

The solution was inventive community engagement that turned everyday Tulsans into the city’s data analysts: the Urban Data Pioneers program. Tulsa recently achieved What Works Cities Certification Honor Roll in part due to the success of this innovative collaboration. Having community members use public data to investigate and address pressing issues in Tulsa fulfills one of the stakeholder engagement criteria for the Certification program.Tulsa Mayor

Without the flexibility to hire analysts halfway through the budget year, Mayor Bynum and Wagner began sourcing private sector analysts and reaching out to organizations like the local Code for America Brigade, Code for Tulsa, a local volunteer group of civic app-makers and software developers. Knowing the city had public, open datasets to offer, Mayor Bynum and Wagner hoped that outside practitioners would be interested in using those resources to explore civic issues. After putting out the word to potential partners about this new, experimental Urban Data Pioneers group, they held their first meetup at City Hall. Interested Tulsans were invited to be part of the initial ten-week cohort. As Wagner explained, “We didn’t know what we really wanted from them, but we knew we had data about crime … blight, property code violations, things like that.”

Team thinking Tulsa

After offering the datasets to these inaugural Pioneers, attendees naturally grouped and began to interrogate the information. Urban Data Pioneers are provided with suggested milestones over the ten weeks, but there is a significant degree of flexibility. Emails are provided for key city hall personnel, and a dedicated Slack channel is also used for communications. Group meeting spaces in City Hall and the public library are available, as are virtual conference platforms, but the groups have autonomy over their own work schedules and meeting locations.

With this first cohort, Tulsa officials didn’t choose the questions for the teams to investigate. They all had ten weeks to question and explore their data, with the only requirement being that one team member serve as the project manager. Everyone had varying degrees of familiarity with data analysis; according to Wagner, “We even encouraged people that just wanted to learn” without actually knowing how to conduct data analysis. After ten weeks of independent work, the Pioneers assembled at City Hall and presented their findings, giving presentations with valuable data insights on everything from traffic crashes to land use. City representatives knew they had a success.

Two years and four cohorts later, Wagner is now the Director of Finance/CFO. The program has evolved, with new types of data and a new director, Ben Harris. In a testament to how well Tulsa engages community members, Harris first encountered the program as an inaugural Pioneer in the very first cohort. Both Wagner and Harris find the program improving as it goes. Teams are now provided with a tighter scope, so they don’t need to generate their own problem statements and questions. There has been a move away from the exploratory projects, so teams are more engaged in “projects that can lead to real outcomes,” according to Harris. And Pioneers now have more defined roles within their teams; there is still a project manager position, but there are also subject matter experts and a data storyteller. This last one is important because Tulsa officials have found that there isn’t always an overlap between “those who are really good at analyzing data and those who are really good at telling the story about it.” And of course, novice data analysts are still welcome to join teams.

Tulsa UDP meeting

The community engagement for Urban Data Pioneers has evolved as well. Originally the city was providing datasets and welcoming community members to analyze them. Now, there is just as much community engagement going on before the teams even join cohorts, with organizations outside city governments providing the projects. According to Harris, “People all the time ask for datasets” and want the Pioneers to help with their data needs. Projects for the upcoming fifth cohort are coming from these requests; for example, legal aid groups want the Pioneers to look into eviction data to help prevent homelessness. This double-sided community engagement is an “organic evolution” because once a group brings a problem to the Pioneers, they begin to understand how to better collect, clean, and improve upon the necessary datasets, which, in turn, improves the outcomes.

Rallying around a problem is now a crucial piece of the Pioneers program. They initially focused on the datasets, but now find that focusing on the problem is a part of community engagement. People who have also noticed a certain issue or thought about the same local problem are now motivated to come together and see if they can move forward on the issue through data. And many groups have moved the needle, presenting work to the Mayor or City Council. For example, one cohort looked at data on 911 calls to help determine the highest call volume times. This helped the call center determine how to best staff to meet the highest call demand. All projects are posted on Tulsa’s website as well.

Urban Data Pioneers has had a resonant effect on the City of Tulsa. In addition to all the great project work being done, it was also the catalyst for a Data Governance Policy, which standardizes a citywide process for managing and publishing data. Recently one team used data that Harris and the department’s data expert cleaned line by line, to make sure the cohort used data without identifying information. From this effort city officials made an official practice for dataset processing; now, all publicly available data will go through the Data Governance Policy that originated with the Pioneers. With outcomes that range from actionable team solutions to increased community engagement to improved city processes, it’s easy to see why Tulsa achieved What Works Cities Certification Honor Roll. The Urban Data Pioneers program was also an inaugural winner of Cities of Service’s Engaged Cities Award, which elevates cities that are working creatively to tap the wisdom, talents, and energy of community members to solve public problems.

Interested in starting a version of Urban Data Pioneers? Wagner and Harris gave recommendations for how to start a collaborative, hands-on data project in other cities.

Make sure it’s a well-scoped project. The exploratory projects that the Pioneers started with were fun but sometimes frustrating, as they ended without a clear directive. “Having it be a problem with a demand or client helps motivate people,” says Wagner.

Give enough time for data prep. Wager admits he underestimated how much time it would take to get quality datasets, saying, “There’s a lot of data cleaning that has to happen.” Anything that’s not already on a city’s open data portal needs to be found, cleaned, and prepared.

Balance the difficulty levels. In the upcoming fifth cohort, Harris is offering beginner, intermediate, and difficult projects. This gives people with all different skills the ability to join a team and help the city.

Encourage team documentation. In addition to the data storytelling, documenting steps leads to increased transparency. This is important so that others outside the team can understand how the analysis was done.

A blueprint for Urban Data Pioneers is also available here.

About the Author

Betsy Gardner

Betsy Gardner is the editor of Data-Smart City Solutions and the producer of the Data-Smart City Pod. Prior to joining the Ash Center, Betsy worked in a variety of roles in higher education, focusing on deconstructing racial and gender inequality through research, writing, and facilitation. She also researched government spending and transparency at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Betsy holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern University, a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Boston University, and a graduate certificate in Digital Storytelling from the Harvard Extension School.