Last week, I had the opportunity to showcase Sunlight’s latest research on community engagement around open data at the Hometown Summit in Charlottesville, Virginia. The event united local leaders, elected officials, practitioners, policymakers, community organizers, and investors in small to mid-sized U.S. cities who are working to find creative solutions for community problems at the local level, for 3 days of sharing stories and strategies. Talking through the barriers to community engagement faced by small cities — especially those who wish to engage residents in using public data — provided us with some meaningful insights into tactics for implementing open data programs in communities with smaller populations and fewer resources.
On the first day of the summit, I joined colleagues from the Center for Government Excellence, the Behavioral Insights Team, and Results for America on a panel highlighting the efforts of the What Works Cities Partnership over the past two years. Amongst a crowd of innovators from small cities across the country, we found the perfect opportunity to introduce the new What Works Cities Certification initiative, which is like an ENERGY STAR rating for data-driven governance. This certification program was created to celebrate U.S. cities that are paving the way for the use of data and evidence to make governments more effective. It expands upon the two years of work we’ve completed in an important way: certification allows smaller cities — with populations as little as 30,000 — to receive recognition for great work incorporating data into the governance process.
We’re thrilled to have more cities join the conversation about opening their data and engaging their communities. There’s a lot we can learn from smaller communities.
Charlottesville, Virginia, for example, is partnering with local organizations to host a Civic Innovation Day in June, where they plan to tap into the knowledge in their community by inviting designers, technologists and any interested citizen to use their talents to develop solutions to tackle community challenges. A member of the City Council of Lancaster, PA is working to help her community- which collects tons of data-find low-cost solutions for hosting open data online. Other small cities like Asheville, NC and Galveston, TX have also worked around resource constraints to join the open data movement. We’re proud to help shine a light on the great work that smaller cities are doing.
Smaller cities, bigger challenges?
Larger cities tend to have more civic tech groups, businesses, nonprofits, academic institutions, and overall more residents to use their data. Smaller cities, on the other hand, face relatively larger barriers creating an active community around data to drive decision-making, spur innovation, and make government more efficient, primarily due to a lack of resources to establish programs internally, as well as fewer data users.
On the second day of the Summit, I participated in a panel about activating citizen leadership and methods for empowering residents to shape the future of cities. Sunlight is interested in discovering how communities can drive public participation in using open data to identify and solve community problems. We began this research several months ago, and have since captured several of these strategies in our new Tactical Data Engagement Guide.
During this panel, I explained the many ways that the strategies in the TDE guide are flexible and can be adapted to work for a city of any size. But as the conversation continued, I began to further reflect on the challenges faced by smaller cities seeking to demonstrate the public’s use and reuse of public data —a key to measuring the success of a sustainable open data program.
So, how can smaller cities overcome these barriers? Stay tuned for my piece on strategies for open data engagement in small towns next week.