OpenGov Voices: LocalWiki turns open local data into open local knowledge

An image of Marina Kukso Managing Director of LocalWiki
Marina Kukso Managing Director of LocalWiki. Image credit: LocalWiki

LocalWiki is an open knowledge project focusing on giving everyone the opportunity to collaborate to create and share all kinds of information about the place where they live.

The project started in 2004 in Davis, Calif. as the Davis Wiki, now the primary local information resource for Davis residents. One-in-seven residents have contributed to the project and, in a given month, almost every resident uses it.

In 2010, we received funding from the Knight Foundation to bring LocalWiki to many more communities. We created a wiki software specifically designed for local collaboration and have seen adoption in more than 70 communities worldwide. People now use LocalWiki for everything from mapping out nature trails to planning a grassroots mayoral election candidate debate.

When I visited Washington, D.C. recently I had the opportunity to meet with the Sunlight Foundation Local team that’s working on open data initiatives at the local and state level. I see our two efforts — helping local governments open up their data and helping communities create open local knowledge — as different pieces of the goal to make information about our communities open and available for everyone to use.

At the local level, the typical answer to the question “How will people use this data if we open it up?” is that civic hackers will create new applications, websites and analyses to make the data useful to the wider public, thereby arming the public with the information necessary to effect change in local government.

An image of participants at Open Data Day 2013 editing LocalWiki
Participants editing LocalWiki in South Bend, Ind. for Open Data Day 2013. Image credit: LocalWiki

This narrative prioritizes only a fairly narrow range of uses for open data. There’s a lot of work that can be done to interpret, contextualize and make meaning out of open data that doesn’t have to come in the form of an application or website. This has typically been seen as the work of journalists (specifically data journalists), but it doesn’t have to be limited to professionals; at the local level, there are fewer and fewer professional journalists available to do this kind of work.

There’s a great deal of expertise within our communities, and at LocalWiki we see part of the mission of our work as providing a platform for people to contextualize and make meaning out of the information made available through open data and open gov efforts at the local level.

There are obviously limitations to the ability of programming laypeople to make use of open data to create new knowledge to drive action, most notably many people’s lack of expertise in data analysis, but with LocalWiki we hope to at least address some of those limitations by making it significantly easier for people to collaborate to create meaning out of open data and to share it with others. This is why LocalWiki has a wysiwyg editor, which includes mapping as a core feature and prioritizes usability in design.

Finally, adding information about a community on LocalWiki is a way to create new open data. It’s incredibly important to make things like internal city crime statistics public, but residents’ perspectives on the relative safety of their neighborhoods is a different kind of data that provides additional insights into public safety challenges and adds complexity to the picture created by statistics.

Just to give one example of the way that open data becomes richer with local knowledge, the Oakland LocalWiki has a collection of murals across Oakland. The Community Rejuvenation Project, a local nonprofit, already had a custom Google map of a number of murals in Oakland. This map was imported into LocalWiki and, over time, people have added many more murals to the list and improved mural entries with photos, information about the artists, what’s portrayed, the buildings and histories of favorite mural spots. Now the wiki includes entries for more than 200 murals, making it a living archive that in some instances contains the only openly-licensed images of murals that no longer exist. And with the LocalWiki API, all of this information becomes a part of the ever-expanding amount of open data available about a community.

This is just one way that community-created local knowledge, increases the value of open data. Ultimately, we need to grow both to create rich local information ecosystems.

This year’s Open Data Day is on Feb. 22, 2014. If you’re interested in using LocalWiki during your Open Data Day event, check out this entry with suggestions for what you can work on.

Marina Kukso is the Managing Director of LocalWiki, a nonprofit working to collect, share and open the world’s local knowledge. She is a co-founder and member of Sudo Room, a hackerspace in Oakland, CA and a co-founder and organizer with Oakland Wiki, Oakland’s LocalWiki. Her previous work includes managing two journals at the nonprofit open access science publisher PLOS. You can reach her at

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