Robert Burack Grey

By Robert Burack • May 4, 2017

Once a month in most of Pittsburgh’s 90 neighborhoods, a long-held civic tradition marches on: residents gather in church basements, park shelters, community centers, and a patchwork of other spaces to discuss community and neighborhood issues. In Pittsburgh, these surprisingly-vibrant meetings — organized by a network of grassroots community groups and community development corporations — constitute the real texture of local civic advocacy.

When Pittsburgh developed Burgh’s Eye View, the city’s recently-launched open data application, the city’s Analytics & Strategy team visited 26 community meetings in early 2017 to gather actionable feedback and share the application with the community. The audience varied in every neighborhood — some of the meetings involved standing-room crowds, and others were intimate. “I presented to a group of six in the basement of a private practice office,” recalled Tara Matthews, a performance improvement analyst. “It was refreshing to see that even a small group of residents could engage in ways to make their neighborhood better.”

The team of analysts offered short presentations focused on how residents might use the application to understand what’s happening in their neighborhood, solicited suggestions for improvements and additional data to include in future updates, and engaged in one-on-one conversations to gain a better understanding of individual residents’ needs.

The team had to thoughtfully consider how to “filter out the tech speak” and present in an accessible and digestible way. The resulting takeaways from the team outline pathways for transforming city analysts into user advocates, show the value of building a broad constituency and taking iterative action based on resident feedback, and provide insight into why cities should pursue open data civic engagement in addition to user research.

Transform your analysts into public user advocates. “When I started working for the City of Pittsburgh, I never gave much thought to creating tools for public consumption,” said Max Cercone, one of the team’s three performance improvement analysts. His focus and interest, like many analysts based in city governments, had been on helping departments improve their work. But as more cities make aspects of their previously-internal data public through open data platforms, analysts must consider how their work does — or could — interact with residents. And if it does, they must also consider how to advocate for users beyond their internal departments. For Cercone, the process of talking with residents gave him “a new perspective on how people use the data I work with every day.”

Practice makes perfect before public presentations. In preparing to speak publicly on a tool they had built, the team practiced how to communicate concisely and without confusing or alienating tech or data jargon. They took turns running through the slide deck in a departmental presentation room, with those sitting offering compliments and critique.

Engage your city’s community affairs office. Prepped and ready for the roadshow, the team partnered with the city’s Office of Community Affairs, which attends nearly all neighborhood and community meetings, and individual council members to fill the calendar. A press release from the mayor’s office touting the roadshow led to additional requests to attend community meetings.

Continuously reflect on what you’re learning and experiencing. Analyst Geoffrey Arnold’s perspective was also shifted by visiting with neighborhood groups. “I remember pausing for questions at the end of my first presentation,” said Arnold, “and a resident had already gone on his phone, looked up his neighborhood on Burgh’s Eye View, and mentioned [in that moment] some of the data he could see. And what he thought about it.” For employees used to longer, internal timelines for implementation and outcomes realization, the potential immediacy of public engagement and feedback can be a reminder that “the data cities put out can have an immediate, and hopefully helpful, effect.”

Aim to build a broad constituency. The roadshow of public meetings is part of the team’s broader strategy to build a regional constituency for open data, as well as an audience for its flagship application. While the region’s open data platform, launched in partnership with Allegheny County and the University of Pittsburgh in fall 2015, has seen an increase in monthly users and published datasets, more work remains to broaden and deepen the number and variety of users. Additionally, Burgh’s Eye View itself has been a critical component of making open data more accessible in Pittsburgh. The responsive web application has allowed the city’s residents, for the first time, to gain visual insight into a broad range of citywide and neighborhood data — including crime and other public safety incidents, building permits and code violations, and 311 service requests. The team’s aggressive engagement efforts are a recognition that the “build it and [users] will come” strategy isn’t effective in building constituency. “While all of the residents we met with were civically involved,” said Matthews, “I don’t think the majority of them had spent much time interacting with open data. Being able to connect the data we’re publishing to the issues they’re concerned by was one of the more meaningful aspects of the meetings.”

Actually make changes based on public feedback. While building trust with neighborhood groups will require time, relationship development, and continued interaction, for now the team is focused on making changes based on resident feedback. By showing they’ve iterated based on suggestions from residents, the team hopes to not only make the tool more useful, but to inspire confidence in the city’s ability to digest and respond to feedback. Two immediate changes include adding an open/closed status indicator for 311 requests, and making custom Burgh’s Eye View maps embeddable on community group websites. This speaks to “not just a specific technical feature,” said Open Data Services Engineer Nick Hall, but “the idea that visualizations of city data will need to get more decentralized, modular, and shareable to achieve reach in the current media economy.”

Prepare to encounter new (and important) perspectives. At a meeting in Hazelwood, on the city’s east side, a resident posed a question the team keeps thinking about. After hearing about the ability to now see neighborhood-level 311, public safety, and building code violations data, a woman asked, “Why is all of this data negative? Can’t we put some positive data [about our neighborhood] on here?” She suggested new business permits. “This is not something that I’d previously given much thought to,” said Cercone. “A lot of the data we work with tends to have a negative connotation, whether that be code violations or tax delinquencies. It’s important for us to think about how we can also tell positive stories.”

Engagement has different objectives than user research. While the team continues to grapple with data perception, both from internal and public users, the question of whether data can be negative is a striking and important one, and was unearthed through a process of community engagement. “It’s not the same thing as user research,” says Hall. Whereas user research employs a number of techniques aimed at understanding the needs and behaviors of users, typically based on a small sample, civic (or community) engagement represents a longer-term and reciprocal commitment to users. Whereas user research is observational and inherently commercial, civic engagement is conversational and inherently democratic. As with democracy, the practices of civic engagement are, in a beautiful way, unwieldy in that they mesh multiple (and sometimes competing) voices.

But how to bridge the unwieldy impulses of engagement with an internal desire to process? For Matthews, it starts by realizing that “if we want our tools to be used by our residents, we need to meet them where they are” and go, together, from there.