3 big themes from the 2016 What Works Cities Summit

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Participants at the 2016 What Works Cities Summit! (Photo credit: What Works Cities/Twitter)

It was great to have everyone under one roof at the 2016 What Works City Summit in New York City recently. The event brought together over 200 officials from the participating cities and five support organizations, including Sunlight. The summit provided a great platform to hear about the challenges cities face as they transition toward opening their data and the innovative solutions that have emerged from their experiences.

I heard three broad themes in the discussions I had there: the need of institutional support, how data can help solve problems and the internal use of open data.

Increasing institutional support for positive change

Open data requires that cities fundamentally change how they operate. In the past, records and data were the province of departments to be delivered upon request, often with several bureaucratic hurdles before they were made public. This created a mentality or culture that guarded data and records, limiting their impact. With the emergence of open data, city employees should adopt a different mindset where openness and sharing are the default.

In our experience with the What Works Cities initiative, changing the culture of how things are done in city hall seems to be the universal challenge. In many instances, city employees individually are accepting and enthusiastic about open data — but the bureaucratic institution of city hall is often not.

What has emerged as a necessity to truly get people on board pushing open data forward is the support and visible encouragement of city leadership. In the experience of more than a few of the cities I spoke to, when that political support is present, doubts play less of role and enthusiasm takes hold.

Strong executive leadership can be the key ingredient that moves open data from being a vanity project for a city to being a transformative initiative. While leadership can come in many forms, one of the strongest ways is the adoption of policy via an executive order or city council resolution. This provides not only strong backing but also a signal internally and externally that open data is a serious initiative that a city government should embrace.

Start with the problem, not the data

Open data is changing the approach of cities to the problems they solve on a day-to-day basis. As cities employ the techniques and concepts that accompany open data, it is resulting in improvements to their internal problem-solving processes.

I heard in several presentations that cities are starting a project by identifying the issue, goal or problem first and then asking where the data is, as opposed to looking at the data first and then trying to find solutions. This is leading cities to ask where else might there be useful data, or how they can collect it if it doesn’t yet exist yet.

This change in thinking has had positive effects. Cities are defining new metrics to help them better diagnose problems. They are also developing new processes for the collection, storage and exchange of information, streamlining how issues are addressed. Cities are finding that open data can be an effective tool for communicating with the community, helping the city tell its story.

One project that reflects this change of approach is the data program the city of Denver created to help manage the legalization of marijuana in Colorado. Another is in the city of Waco, Texas, which will seek to publish the progress of internal investigations associated with misconduct claims against police officers through the city’s website. This came as a response to community-building efforts on the part of police and community groups like churches and the NAACP. As a Waco official noted to me, the development of this tool is something he viewed as a necessary component in supporting accountability within the department.

The internal value of open data

Open data policies should also be used to facilitate the exchange of information internally in cities. Many of solutions developed using open data come from the cross-referencing of datasets held by different departments. This allows for increased collaboration and comprehensive solutions that provide better insight and broader perspective.

The deconstruction of silos is one benefit of open data that excites city officials most. Opening up government to itself provides an a great opportunity for internal collaboration and problem solving. Robust open data policies that apply across all departments are essential to making that happen.

2016 and Beyond

My interactions with city officials at the summit left me with a deep appreciation for the work that they do transforming their cities. While we heard about many of their challenges, what resonated the most was a consistent feeling of hope and potential. While there may have been a bias in the room — after all, cities were there as participants in a program that explicitly promotes open data — I never heard of an instance where a city thought it should do away with or scale back its open data program. In fact, the prevailing sentiment was deep desire to improve on open data practices, so that it can be something that truly useful to city operations and truly engaging with the community.

Open data policy can help further each of the three broad themes discussed above, showing commitment to executive and institutional support, defining goals and problems first, and ensuring departmental participation. Indeed, with robust open data policy cities can break down barriers to the disclosure and exchange of information, using data to to develop better systems, solutions and communities. Sunlight is happy to continue support for this important policy work as part of the What Works Cities initiative in 2016 and beyond.