OpenGov Voices: Making open data more accessible — three lessons from Boston

From left to right: Ben Green, Kayla Larkin and Renée Walsh setting up Boston Open Data’s pop-up table at the main branch of the Boston Public Library.
From left to right: Ben Green, Kayla Larkin and Renée Walsh setting up Boston Open Data’s pop-up table at the main branch of the Boston Public Library. (Photo credit: Howard Lim/City of Boston)

How do you share open data in a meaningful way to help citizens convert data into knowledge about their city?

Over the past few months, the City of Boston’s Open Data team has worked to explore this essential question by placing our computers aside. In our quest to bring the Open Data to Open Knowledge project (funded by the Knight Foundation) to life, the team set out to host conversations to learn from everyday Bostonians.

Headshot of Howard C. Lim
Howard Lim is the project manager of the City of Boston’s Open Data to Open Knowledge initiative.

Given the community’s ongoing trust in their local libraries and our ongoing partnership with the Boston Public Library, we decided to arrange these discussions to take place at neighborhood branch libraries. We set up Boston Open Data pop-up tables at five branch libraries and at the central branch to gauge the public’s ongoing concerns and knowledge about the city’s open-data work.

We set up tables near entrances, adjacent to the children’s reading room, and wherever we could to speak with library patrons as they went about their busy lives. The team spoke to babysitting grandmothers, doting fathers, and busy teenagers across Boston and learned so much about how we can make Boston Open Data more accessible.

We’ve shared our top three lessons below in the hopes that these lessons can be helpful to other municipalities as well.


Lesson 1: The term “open data” is confusing

In our conversations, when we introduced the existence of Boston Open Data, many citizens expressed confusion about why such a platform existed. People even questioned the meaning of data itself. These insights suggest that open data by itself conveys little meaning about the underlying information. As a result, in our efforts to redevelop the City’s online sharing platform for data, we are working to sharpen our communications to convey what open data is and what it is not. By wrapping the platform with plain language (as suggested by 18F), we seek to broaden its reference and use by Boston’s citizens.


Lesson 2: Data rarely came up during our conversations

When interacting with Bostonians, we found that most people seldom discuss their everyday concerns by requesting more access to City data. When asked if there was data about Boston that people wanted to see, they rarely had any requests. It’s evident that releasing City data without much context has few benefits, especially because people don’t seem to connect issues with data. As a result, in our ongoing efforts to publish City data, we seek to provide potential use cases to hopefully deepen this connection.


Lesson 3: Libraries are trusted institutions and librarians serve as gateways to building community knowledge

Everyone we spoke with had nothing but positive things to say about their local library. Of course, people visited for a myriad of reasons — from paying a bill to studying for an exam — but all felt the library was an important pillar in their lives.

Interestingly, we also learned that librarians have a great sense of the intellectual pulse of their communities due to their interactions with the public. For example, during one of our conversations with a librarian from Jamaica Plain (a Boston neighborhood), we got a great neighborhood perspective on civic life.

Given these factors, we seek to work with librarians to provide greater public access to Boston Open Data.

The Mattapan branch of the Boston Public Library.
(Photo credit: Howard Lim/City of Boston)

We want to incorporate these three lessons into our ongoing work to redevelop the City’s online portal for open data, which we plan to release by this spring. Additionally, by sharing our efforts on Sunlight’s blog, we hope to spark the open-government initiatives and transparency work found in other municipalities.

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