Sustaining a Data Culture in City Hall: Lessons from Los Angeles and Boston

By Betsy Gardner • May 29, 2019

Whether you’re already running a data literacy training, or you’re looking to start one, sustainability is a crucial consideration. A data culture implies sustained data literacy that permeates all levels of an organization, not just a “one and done” session. And beyond being literate in data, a true data culture affects organizational enthusiasm, improves service delivery, and empowers employees. If you haven’t started a training program yet, now is a great time to plan a sustainable model. And if you’ve already started, there are still many ways to weave sustainability into your current trainings. Below are several actionable ways to do this, featuring advice from data leaders in Los Angeles and Boston.

The first data literacy training for Los Angeles city employees took place in July 2016, nearly a month after Sari Ladin-Sienne started working on data and analytics in the LA Mayor’s Office. They now offer a quarterly meeting, through the Citywide Data Collaborative, which is a more formal group. Other trainings less regular and are based on demand from city employees. There have been sessions on dashboarding, leveraging the open data portal, building story maps, and how to use spatial analysis. Ladin-Sienne is now the Chief Data Officer, and is dedicated to increasing data literacy and knowledge sharing in the city. I spoke with Ladin-Sienne about how she and her team sustain their training program and foster connections across departments.

Support the auxiliary benefits: The first training in LA brought together 60 people in the downtown public library to learn about the city’s GeoHub portal for geospatial data. Ladin-Sienne called this session “an epiphany moment” because it was “the first time we really convened a larger group of data-oriented people in the city. It opened up the eyes of all of us in the Mayor’s Office that these people don’t really have many opportunities to come together.” Those personal connections meant that employees could more easily collaborate on projects since they knew who could help with what requests. It also spurred her team to build infrastructure to support these convenings, so there would be concrete plans for this group to continue to meet up. Recognizing the subsidiary benefits and planning ways to remain connected is crucial to ensuring that the initial enthusiasm doesn’t peter out.

Provide formal and informal options: The data team established different convening infrastructures, so everyone could find an option to connect and learn. The data team hosts the “Citywide Data Collaborative, which is a more formal group of data stewards in the city” and the Data Batcave. The Batcave is “a way to bring our trainings together in a more informal setting” in the Mayor’s office; Ladin-Sienne describes it as “monthly office hours” facilitated by the data team. Having two different ways to plug into data literacy education accommodates employees’ busy schedules and varying time commitments.

Respond to needs: When employees attend a training, it has to be worth their time. Ladin-Sienne makes sure that time in the Batcave is used to the greatest advantage by sending out a request for topics that will guide the agenda and inform the data team “what people are grappling with.” Asking for input a week before meeting guarantees that no one’s time is wasted and everyone knows they will leave with applicable knowledge.

Share the leadership: Ladin-Sienne believes that a data culture is built from the ground up, which is why her team is exploring a train-the-trainer model and dispersed leadership with other departments. Her team is trying out a new model where different departments co-chair and co-facilitate the data trainings for a year. They’re “trying to build a more collective approach, and we think in the long term this will lead to better long-term engagement, build a more diverse group, and bring in more perspectives.” In committing to inclusion, Ladin-Sienne is extending ownership to other departments and deepening the commitment to data literacy across city hall.

In Boston, sustainability is being built in from the very beginning as the Citywide Analytics Team develops their data literacy trainings. Previously, a cohort of city librarians underwent the Civic Data Ambassador training, a six-week online course to train librarians in how to search and filter open data, conduct basic analysis, and assist community members with using data for their own research. Currently these materials are being adapted for city hall employees. Kim Lucas, the Open Data Program Manager on the Analytics Team, is leading this work; I spoke with Lucas and Stefanie Costa Leabo, Boston’s Chief Data Officer, about how to build a sustainable training program that excites and educates their city hall colleagues.

Know the wants and needs: As this program is being crafted, Lucas wants to make sure this training is informed by the users within City Hall. To her, the most important aspect of curriculum building is “hearing from people and knowing their wants and needs, in order to build something that they’ll really want and use.” Data literacy trainings are investments of both time and money, so “there’s no point in building a whole program if people aren’t interested in participating in it.” Surveying employees and incorporating their feedback will increase their interest in the training.

Demonstrate the usefulness: Costa Leabo gave an example to illustrate this point: their public information offices have had success with the open data, because once her team opened up the datasets it made their jobs easier. Now “they can send folks a link and say ‘Here’s the data, it’s all open, you can sort through, filter through, search through this’” instead of spending all their time doing it themselves. People are encouraged to learn more data skills when they see the real time savings for their jobs.

Prioritize your staff so you can prioritize your citizens: With data literacy training, cities have the opportunity to reflect on their own practices and service culture. As Lucas explained, “this is one of those “Put the oxygen bag on yourself before you help others” kind of thing. We could not be fully equipped to really help everyone in the city figure out and parse through and answer citywide questions beyond city hall if we can’t do that ourselves.”

Adjust job descriptions to reflect data culture: Data is permeating many aspects of modern work. Lucas wants to prepare current and future public servants because “it’s no longer just the data analyst who’s expected how to work with data.” In Boston, Costa Leabo and Lucas are encouraging departments to rethink job descriptions to include more data skills. Data literacy training is an investment in an employee and one way to enhance the city’s workforce and production.

Include staff from all levels: The Analytics Team in Boston started with a top-down executive engagement strategy. One of their goals for this training program is to “make sure that what we’re hearing from department heads and cabinet chiefs isn’t the opposite from what we’re hearing from middle managers and frontline staff.” The data literacy training won’t just be a one-way street; an equal flow of information helps the data team address “the real problems, not just what has bubbled up as a perceived problem” and gives frontline staff the chance to elevate their challenges.

Think long term: Lucas and Costa Leabo are realistic about the road ahead, acknowledging “we take the long view. We don’t really think there’s a way to snap your fingers and get everyone up to a certain level of literacy in a short period of time.” Mapping sustainability is incredibly important and not always easy, but it is worthwhile.

For cities that are interested in data literacy trainings, there are various free courses available from GovEx, Qlick and the Data Literacy Project, and the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership. Building, and sustaining, data literacy in cities will benefit both city hall and the community it’s working to serve.

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.