Jennifer Angarita Grey

By Jennifer Angarita • November 21, 2016

From exploring neighborhood maps to generating analysis and building applications, citizens, businesses, nonprofits and technologists can all benefit from open data. However, much of the recent focus on open data has centered on the role of technology and overlooked community members and users themselves.

Harnessing the power of open data necessitates meaningful engagement with diverse external stakeholders like journalists, community-based organizations, and local residents. While many cities may strive to engage diverse communities through open data, in practice, cities often struggle to inclusively and systematically collaborate with external partners.

Recently, Cambridge, MA led an in-depth analysis and released a first-of-its-kind report exploring how cities can better collaborate with open data users to increase the impact of civic innovation. The report, Amplifying Civic Innovation: Community Engagement Strategies for Open Data Collaborations, presents numerous findings on how local municipalities can support inclusive and sustained collaborations with different users of open data.

To understand the challenges and opportunities open data stakeholders face, the 2016 report examines in-depth interviews with dozens of residents, researchers, university staff, technologists, members of neighborhood alliances, and city employees in Cambridge and across the country. Their collective experiences, insights, and recommendations underscore the need for cities to apply lessons from civic engagement to the field of civic innovation. From identifying community needs to communicating with open data users, the research study identifies potential barriers cities may face at different stages of open data collaborations and specific tactics to address them.

Below are the three key strategies municipalities can employ to make better of use of open data and to foster deeper engagement with community stakeholders.

1. Define the problem and understand diverse community needs.

First, cities must define the most relevant and meaningful needs or challenges to zero in on. Subject matter experts like housing counselors and economic development specialists who work alongside impacted communities have significant in-depth knowledge about local civic issues. As a result, city experts should help frame questions and craft well-defined problem statements and use cases for open data.

Because civic technology groups may lack in-depth knowledge about local issues, they may find it challenging to identify residents’ true needs and assess the value of a potential open data project. Working alongside diverse community groups, city experts should take the lead in identifying the needs of residents and articulating potential use cases for open data.  Moreover, to be inclusive of the diverse range of perspectives of city partners, open data collaborations should seek to engage multiple stakeholder communities, both online and offline, informally and formally. For instance, cities can develop crowdsourced “problem inventories” and host in-person scope-a-thons that help community members and city staff share their insights and perspectives. Within open data portals, cities can create metadata usage fields that allow city experts to identify and communicate best use cases for different datasets.

2. Establish multiple open data champions at different levels.

Data champions can serve a critical role in the success of open data projects, but local governments need different kinds of data champions serving different roles. Having an executive-level open data champion can help set a prominent open data agenda and encourage other city leaders to get on board. Within and across departments, internal-facing data champions can help train city staff on open data best practices through technology literacy workshops. In addition, having designated external-facing data champions can help community members know who to turn to for help.  From newsletters and Twitter to Github and Slack, community-focused data champions should identify and leverage the communication preferences of different stakeholder groups to showcase successful open data projects and support open data users.  

Each of these roles is instrumental to helping promote, initiate, and sustain open data projects.  Identifying open data champions and equipping them with the necessary tools to succeed is critical step in elevating the importance of open data citywide. Furthermore, appointing multiple open data champions sends a strong signal that your city takes open data engagement seriously.

3. Communicate adoption constraints and expectations to external partners early on.

If the goal of an open data collaboration is for a municipality to ultimately adopt and implement a solution, then questions of confidentiality, privacy and security need to be considered from day one. For instance, city governments can face technological, legal, or operational challenges in endorsing, adopting or implementing civic technology like online platforms or real-time phone apps. In practice, these challenges are often only discussed after a project is completed or when it is too late to make the necessary changes.

Because civic technologists and others may be less familiar with the operational and technical constraints city governments face (such as server limitations), city employees should clearly identify potential adoption hurdles open data projects may face. By articulating adoption strategies and blueprints for external partners early on, cities can help set up a pathway of success for external partners to follow.

Taken together, the findings and recommendations from this report can help inform future open data collaborations and serve as a basis for expanding research on collaborative open data practices. As the open data field continues to evolve, understanding the emerging and ongoing challenges and opportunities related to community engagement is essential to the success of open data. Through effective and multi-pronged public engagement strategies, open data has the potential to help add value and spur civic innovation. As a result, governments can move beyond developing solutions in isolation to developing or co-producing civic solutions in collaboration with community members.

For more information or to learn more about the City of Cambridge’s 2016 Report “Amplifying Civic Innovation: Community Engagement Strategies for Open Data Collaborations,” please click here.