At the local level, civic engagement is often meant to look a certain way: A concerned citizen attends a hearing, or writes a strongly worded letter to city hall. City officials receive the message and, with enough prodding, take action.
But this model is not one size fits all.
Speaking to student researchers from Brown University, a Providence convenience store owner named Yasseen explained why. He said that small business owners and immigrants to the United States, like himself, face unique hurdles.
“It’s hard for them to understand that you can go and express yourself and say, ‘I object to this law,’” he said. “And they do not understand that they can speak; they are too afraid to communicate.” Even if these citizens are aware of hearings or meetings, he added, they may be hard to attend, especially if they are scheduled during business hours.
But in this case, City Hall was listening.
Last spring, Providence’s Department of Innovation partnered with the students and teachers of Public Policy 1802, an undergraduate course at Brown University. This partnership serves as a fantastic model for how local policymakers can work with the academic community in their cities to improve public policy.
It also demonstrates how open data policy can serve as a tool to make these partnerships even more productive. Using city data and public information on city hearings, courtesy of the open meetings portal, students conducted research that City Hall could later turn into solutions.
Two Brown University sociology graduate students, Diana Graizbord and Jamie McPike, led the class. McPike described their initial conversations with Nicole Pollock, then Providence’s Chief Innovation Officer, now the city’s Chief of Staff.
“It essentially fit a need that she had at the time,” McPike said in an interview with Sunlight. “They really wanted to understand the needs of small business owners in the city, particularly small minority business owners [who] weren’t really engaged in discussions about economic development and the city’s future.”
The students’ projects, available online as multimedia stories with audio and visual elements, show that these business owners were eager to engage — given the opportunity. Leaving Brown’s campus and fanning out across Providence, the students spoke to business owners like Yaseen, like Minnie Luong, who wanted to set up shop for her locally sourced vegan kimchi, like Jim Schatz and Peter Souza, who just opened up a ceramics business. They included people of color, women and other groups who may be underrepresented.
The students began with a list of active business licenses in Providence, provided by the Innovation Department in the form of a spreadsheet. Now, however, that data is available online in an intuitive, navigable format, via the Providence Open Data Portal. The portal went live in 2013 and opens all sorts of data up to the public, from a list of stores that accept SNAP benefits to a map of Goodwill collection bins. The data means dividends for researchers, whether associated with universities, nonprofits, think tanks and other institutions.
According to Stephanie Caress, the Innovation Project Associate in the Department of Innovation, the students served as important fact finders. “It gave us a little support and backbone to show the struggle that business owners have been having,” she said. “The entire process of starting a business is very difficult and has a lot of barriers to entry: whether it’s outdated forms or the forms are hard to understand, whether licenses are easy to obtain, whether permits are easy to obtain.”
The Innovate PVD and PLCY 1802 partnership took an unusual approach to addressing these issues. The students did not propose policy solutions or attempt to be problem solvers.
“I’ve done a lot of social impact work, especially within the university setting, where we try to have classes that try to go out and develop solutions,” said McPike. “And the more that I do that, the more that I don’t think it works.” She cited constraints of time and knowledge: A semester is not long enough to fix root problems, or even long enough for students to fully understand the communities they are trying to help.
“I’m not sure that students and faculty researchers are always in the best position to produce policy recommendations and solutions,” said Graizbord, the other instructor. “I think that our comparative advantage is actually to produce data — and data broadly imagined.”
In June, Providence joined the What Works Cities initiative, a new effort to improve open data across American cities. Since then, Sunlight has worked with the city to use data to improve outcomes for residents. Providence’s partnership with PLCY 1802 could be an example for What Works Cities across the country.
This partnership also shows that the category of data encompasses the tech tools we usually think of, but also extends to sources of information some might consider analogue: conversations.
With data on who was applying for a business license and where, the students went out into Providence’s neighborhoods, including Broad Street and Olneyville. They collected data using sociological methods, including ethnography. The ethnography informed the Department of Innovation on what its next steps should be: Caress’s team is working to build an online platform that will bring resources for business owners together in one place and contain digital licensing and permitting forms. Going forward, she hopes to take these lessons to the next level: bringing the process online for business owners across Rhode Island.
Providence City Hall has also partnered with other universities through MetroLab, a program that pairs local governments and the universities around them to produce innovation. According to Caress, university partnerships, especially with specific courses, come with unique benefits.
“Building this type of program into the curriculum makes it sustainable because it’s not a separately funded program,” she said. “We don’t have enough funding at the city level to support a lot of the research we would like to do, so it’s kind of a win-win.”
Students and faculty are also able to work in ways that public officials sometimes cannot. “We have the comparative advantage of being critical,” Graizbord said. “I’m not bound by the immediate politics the way the Mayor, the City Council and even the folks in the Department of Innovation are. … They have to be careful and we don’t, so much.”
Graizbord added that this critical lens allowed her students to explore issues that underlie business ownership and licensing in Providence today: gentrification, race and inequality. “I think the advantage we have as faculty researchers in the university setting is that we’re versed in those, we’re steeped in those conversations.”
Graizbord has since left Brown University to become a professor at the University of Georgia, but McPike plans to team up with the Department of Innovation to teach this course again next semester. She will have new data, a new topic to research and a fresh crop of students ready to go into the community and start conversations.
Here, Caress sees the potential for the most lasting impact. “If there’s more we can do to get students more ingrained in the community and community projects, the more likely they are to want to stay and help the community grow.”