Tacoma becomes sixth What Works City to adopt an open data policy

The city of Tacoma, Wash. (Photo credit: The city of Tacoma/Twitter)

In partnership with Sunlight and The Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University, the city of Tacoma, Wash., has become the second What Works City to adopt a Council Resolution on Open Data, making it the sixth policy updated or passed as a part of the program. What Works Cities (WWC) is a three-year, nationwide initiative aimed at accelerating the use of data and evidence in American cities to improve government efficiency and ultimately the lives of residents.

Earlier this week, Tacoma City Council approved Resolution 39378, reaffirming the city’s commitment to using data to make government more transparent and efficient, and to promote civic engagement. Yes, reaffirming. That’s because Tacoma has been engaged in opening up its data for a while now. As IT Director Jack Kelanic noted, it’s been publishing GIS data for a decade and have had open, online access to public meetings for more than two years. In 2014, Tacoma launched an open data portal, TacomaData.org, where they’ve been proactively releasing valuable data to the public. Departments have published 70 datasets, which received more than 600,000 page views last year. Codifying the city’s commitment to openness through an official open data policy was the next logical step in the openness process.

While the city’s current efforts have seen initial success, these early accomplishments have been made primarily on an ad hoc basis, with some departments opting to participate more than others. Codifying the open data process, as we know from our previous work with local governments, both establishes a framework to ensure mutual understanding of the city’s goals for open data, as well as a mandate for departmental participation in the overall open data process.

The resolution also calls for the proactive release of high-priority data. As Mayor Marilyn Strickland pointed out, the initiative won’t be a simple “data dump.” Instead, the city’s open data team collaborated with WWC partners to ensure that information will be presented in a way that makes the most sense for engaging users and providing them with the information they need — both inside and outside of city hall. The effort was applauded by a stakeholder who — during the council’s public comment period — noted that by guaranteeing easy access to datasets collected by the city’s various departments, the resolution allows the public to review data related to decisions that financially and contractually impact Tacoma’s residents.

This includes decisions related to the city’s strategic goals. Through Tacoma’s work with WWC, the open data team has launched a data inventory process to identify and prioritize for release those datasets that relate to the focus areas in Tacoma 2025, the community’s strategic plan. These areas include health and safety, human and social needs, economic vibrancy and employment, education and learning, arts and cultural vitality, natural and built environment, and — last, but not least — government performance.

Sunlight commends Tacoma for including two key best practices in open data policies: the creation of an oversight authority as well as the mandate for annual review over the progress toward the city’s open data goals. The resolution lays out a structure for governance and accountability for the initiative moving forward by calling for the appointment of “city representatives” who will be responsible for planning and executing the vision for open data in Tacoma. We are hopeful that as this team strives to implement the new policy, they’ll have numerous successes to document in their mandated annual progress report.

To keep achieving the goals set out in the resolution, the city’s open data leaders should continue conducting their data inventory, taking care to include data from all departments and all community priority areas. As is the trend in other local governments with robust open data programs, such as Philadelphia, San Francisco and Montgomery County, Tacoma could take its program a step further by sharing this inventory online. The San Francisco open data team currently shares not only its inventory, but also its plans for future dataset publication. Sharing a unique plan for data release will help the Tacoma boost public participation in the open data process.

For now, it’s time to celebrate a major success for both the folks in the Tacoma city government that worked hard to make open data a reality, and also community members who now have greater evidence of the city’s commitment to transparency. Mayor Strickland said it best when she expressed that — consistent with the goals laid out in the What Works Cities initiative — the city will use open data to make better decisions that will ultimately benefit the residents of Tacoma.