An Iowan Path To Open Data In Des Moines

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Screenshot of Des Moines open data website

In a small room in Des Moines, a government worker quietly explained to us how opening up an internal database could improve public safety.

Michele Bischof, the superintendent of technical services from the Fire Department of Des Moines, Iowa, said that she’d across a dataset which indicated that chronic diabetes was responsible for a significant number of 911 calls they received. If that data set was open to city workers and the public online, she suggested, it could both help with grant applications and improve public health decisions. It’s exactly the kind of connection between opening public data and improved public outcomes that Sunlight wants to see made in the world.

I was in Des Moines to commemorate the passage of a resolution by the City Council on February 20th, which officially established the city’s open data program. During our time in Iowa, we met with the elected officials and the city staff who will be developing the program.

We learned that, despite the challenges Des Moines faced in opening public data, like silos in individual departments, the city was determined to open up their data in their own deliberate, “Iowan” way.

This program will provide the public and city staff with a powerful tool to exchange information. As Mayor Cownie noted in his remarks after the vote, the program also reflects Des Moines’ commitment to transparency.

Confronting shared challenges

Like many cities that have developed an open data program, Des Moines is facing a series of challenges.

The first barrier was access. As is true of many cities, Des Moines uses several legacy systems that held data in inaccessible formats. Further, agencies were undergoing a significant update to these systems, which hindered their ability to gather data in an organized fashion.

The second barrier was capacity. As a smaller city with older systems, Des Moines staff worried that they did not have enough space to store all the data that it collects in one place. While they recognized the value of open data, the means to that end — such as inventorying datasets — seemed daunting and some questioned if the goals associated with program were achievable.

The third barrier was human capital. On open data, capacity didn’t just refer to servers, but the ability of city workers to implement the program, given limited resources. The city was anxious about the amount of staff time it would take to get the program up and running and to maintain it.

The final barrier was fragmentation. Much of the city’s data was siloed in departments, making it difficult to share internally, let alone with the public.

Meeting cities where they are

A key part of Sunlight’s Open Cities work is to meet communities where they are to talk about transitioning to a culture of data-driven, evidence-based decisionmaking.

Doing our work right means gaining a comprehensive understanding of a city’s resources and goals for open data, and then agreeing on realistic objectives for a given time frame. In Des Moines, this meant taking into account legacy systems, limited IT resources and staff capacity. The city decided to space out the development and implementation of the policy over of a year, beginning with creating an internal governance structure for the open data program.

There are distinct advantages to taking this approach.

First, it allowed the city to refine its practices around data management with open data in mind. As they update systems, develop new practices and educate staff, Des Moines can build buy-in for the open data program, nurturing a more open mindset toward proactive disclosure and adoption of best practices, like encouraging the use of open formats.

Second, Des Moines could manage expectations in the program while working to build with stakeholders through community engagement. As a result, the city is not making promises it can’t keep while it looks for opportunities cultivate its future user base.

At the end of our meetings, I left hopeful about Des Moines’ program. Despite some apprehension, city staff were excited about the possibilities open data presented when data is more accessible both internally and externally.

We’re proud to have helped Des Moines develop and implement an approach to open data that addresses the distinct challenges faced by city officials and the community they serve.

The city should continue to build capacity internally by developing guidance around open data and educate staff. They’re already on that path: Des Moines’ new data governance team is already holding meetings. We look forward to seeing how far they travel in the year ahead.