OpenGov Voices: Tulsa’s open data balancing act

Penny Macias, project manager in Tulsa’s Maximizing and Advancing Performance Office

In 2013, the city of Tulsa created its Open Tulsa website, which now has 35 datasets published. The number of datasets, compared to cities who have released 10 times the amount, doesn’t adequately reflect the level of commitment by the city; it illustrates the lack of support and advocacy from stakeholders to demand more. Open Tulsa has a link for anyone to request a dataset be published, and in two years of operation, the city has received zero inquiries or requests. Additionally, we’ve had very little interest from the local news media in response to our news pitches and releases about open data. As a result, we believe we are addressing the local needs, but we want to do more as an organization to build upon our transparency and civic engagement efforts.

In addition to the lack of public interest, we unfortunately have not had the resources to consistently plan for the strategic implementation of open data goals. In 2009, like most others, our city was forced to cut positions, but the demands and workload did not decrease. In 2013, the city experienced a serious enough budget shortfall to prompt a hiring freeze and the elimination of several positions for the fiscal year that began on July 1, 2014. Our budget that began July 1, 2015 had little expansion. Growth is slow. Our staffing levels are still lower than previously maintained.

Along with all the day-to-day responsibilities to citizens, the city continues to receive open records requests and has, at times, struggled to fulfill requests as quickly as citizens would like. The burden of responding to open records requests requires a significant workload and resources which is piled onto employees who are likely doing the work of two or three people. As we acknowledge the possibility of a flat budget in the near future, we hope our use of open data can reduce the demand on Tulsa’s staff to respond to information requests, allowing them to focus on delivering excellent services to our citizens.

The city of Tulsa, Okla. (Photo credit: Caleb Long/Wikimedia Commons)

For all the benefits of open data, there are real risks we must consider as well. We cannot publish datasets that would provide too much information about citizens and put them at risk of being a target for crime. There’s at least 10 other types of data we cannot publish (such as those that are HIPAA protected). To go through our data, create an inventory and then filter out what must be protected takes time, people and money.

Thanks to the generosity of What Works Cities as well as the help of the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University we are working on policies that support open data. This includes an open data plan and a data classification policy, which will help employees understand what data can and cannot be made public and their roles in making data open.

We have implemented a pilot program to use data for one of our mayor’s primary goals – improving public safety. An initial list of public safety datasets has been identified from existing KPIs, or key performance indicators. Police and Fire Department data coordinators have been appointed and are working with our Open Data Steering Committee to determine when we can release the first round of datasets. They will also put together a plan for releasing additional datasets going forward.

We are working with our partners at Code for Tulsa to plan a mini-hackathon where we will take one or two public safety datasets and educate employees and citizens on how those datasets can be turned into endless information opportunities. We realize that for open data to really take hold in Tulsa, there must be a strong showing of the possible positive uses of the data we publish. When we see success, we expect to expand to other goals like strengthening the economy.

So instead of diving into the deep end of open data, we are wading slowly and carefully into an area that is still new to most people. We are taking baby steps because we know without them we couldn’t develop the strong core that will support bigger strides in the future. We need to develop the team confidence that we are on the right track, to not just dump information into a mass expanse of data, but to actually give citizens data that is meaningful to them and helps illustrate their tax dollars at work.

We appreciate the plunge other cities have taken. Looking at their policies and successes has given us some great ideas and tools to get started. We celebrate the movement to simplify making data open and show our citizens just how much we are doing with the resources we have. However, we also know our citizens have a long list of needs and wants. We have to balance out forward thinking with immediate needs.

I don’t think anyone has figured out the right formula of resources to devote to open data just yet, but I am confident the work we are doing in Tulsa is a vital element in finding the balance. I can’t promise we will have published 1,000 datasets this time next year. I only know every one of us working on the initiative is excited about making data more accessible to our citizens. We are blazing a trail for more engagement and improved technology. We are laying the foundation now to secure a future Tulsa that is more open to all.

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