How American cities can help close the national trust deficit


2017 What Works City Summit group photo

In a world where fake news has become an international preoccupation, an increasing number of American cities are committing to make data-driven governance a core part of their culture. It’s an important trend, and one that we’re proud to participate in leading.

In March, Sunlight joined hundreds of public officials from more than 90 cities around the world and our partners in the What Works Cities initiative in New York City to share knowledge and discuss the future of data-driven cities.

The entire Open Cities team traveled up from DC to host sessions on data standards, community engagement with open data, and share the state of the Sunlight Foundation’s work with local governments.

We came away both reinvigorated and inspired to pursue our work in the coming year. Here are three key takeaways:

Cities play an important role in national politics

Cities can create change from the ground up, implementing practical, effective policies that uphold our democracy’s ingrained standards for transparency and accountability. Urban open data champions play a key role in the national politics. This year at the What Works Cities Summit, it was clear that cities are at the center of ongoing, important national discussion about how data can serve the American people, wherever their mayors sit on the political spectrum.

The work of Sunlight’s Open Cities team necessarily means resolving the nitty gritty issues involved in  drafting and enacting an open data policy. We are immersed in the work of adapting the larger goals of the open data movement to the environment of each What Works City. It’s easy for us and our partners in city governments to get bogged down in the details of shifting not just practice and policy but culture.

It was both uplifting and inspiring to be reminded at the Summit that developing more open relationships between governments and residents is part of a much larger conversation about what it means to live in a democracy. In the year ahead, our team hopes to help cities imbue their stories with the power of empirical evidence, connecting how the efforts of cities to open data bolsters the commitment of American governments to public accountability based upon evidence.

Local government champions matter

In our work with cities, we’ve often talked about the successes of champions like chief data officer Eric Roche of Kansas City and other contributors to our OpenGov Voices series. Over the years, we’ve used our blog to capture their stories, but after listening to the challenges and occasional crises of confidence of Summit attendees, we know we need to help open government champions realize their own successes.

Hundreds of city staff members around the country are creating opportunities for open data that never existed in their cities before by having tough conversations and suggesting improvements, including some changes that may go against the political grain. A recent post by Lisa Abeyta, founder and CEO of CityLife, highlighted the importance of recognizing cities’ “unsung heroes.”

Laura Melle, a Summit attendee from the City of Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology, said that she felt better going back to her city knowing she had the support of over 300 allies committed to open government. Every city champion should know they have that level of support. Sunlight will keep celebrating and congratulating hard-working city staff who are making the open data movement happen around the world.

Time to go beyond access to information

As a team, we’re proud of the successes we’ve had in cities in the past year – but we have a lot we still want to achieve. At Summit, we heard about city leaders using open data as a tool to engage communities, increase transparency, accountability and public participation. Cities are continuing to grow beyond access, with or without us.

Part of our focus for the coming year will be to develop resources that address cities’ needs to reach citizens more effectively with open data. Some of these resources are already in development, which you can read about in our post about Sunlight’s new Tactical Data Engagement guide. We will continue studying the uplifting stories of cities like Boston, Pittsburgh, and data collaboratives around the world that work with community partners and external researchers to apply city data.

We’re inspired by many new stories of the impact of open data we heard at Summit. Whether it’s improving a public records request system, using open data to help members of the community work on shared problems, or experimenting with public participation pilots, we hope to hear about more successes in open data that belong in the national spotlight.

We’re particularly interested in studying ways in which cities like can use community-generated data from local partners. For example, Baltimore city government is working to incorporate data from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance into their open data portal. We hope other cities will use this practice to incorporate their own external partners into discussions about their open data goals?

This year’s Summit helped cement the notion that community input in city decision-making is a core component in the movement toward transparent, accountable government. We’re excited to work with more cities to bring more of the public into public policymaking in year ahead.