Toward more open, data-driven cities


Skyline of Portland, Oregon
(Photo credit: Jami Dwyer / Wikimedia Commons.)

Last week marked the two-year anniversary of the official launch of the What Works Cities Initiative, which makes this a useful moment to reflect on Sunlight’s progress supporting cities in the What Works network in the context of our broader theory of change.

Sunlight’s Open Cities Team believe strongly that cities must leverage data-and-evidence to become not only more efficient, but more transparent, accountable, and participatory — in short, more open — as well.

Many city officials agree, and, propelled by this conviction, our team is working hard to help city halls that want to become both data-driven and data-democratized.

In this post we’ll check in on this work by exploring our progress supporting three critical steps needed for cities to realize the full benefits of data-driven governance in a 21st century democracy:

  • First, cities need to build the infrastructure for data transparency.
  • Second, cities need to design this infrastructure to be responsive to public feedback and ultimately accountable to the public interest.
  • Third, cities need to encourage community participation by facilitating the reuse of public data to drive positive community impact.

Taken together, these steps are key to moving the conversation beyond the data-driven city hall and toward a vision for the open, data-driven city.

Building the infrastructure for data transparency

Sunlight’s primary role on the What Works Cities effort to date has been supporting city halls as they develop public policy frameworks to ensure the proactive release of government information online (“open data policies” for short).

We believe these data-democratizing reforms constitute critical infrastructure for cities that strive to be data-driven, and our progress in helping cities build this infrastructure has been substantial.

When What Works Cities first launched in April of 2015, fewer than 30 American cities with population between 100,000 and 1 million people—only about 10% of the municipalities that our initiative defines as “mid-sized cities”—had at least one open data policy on the books.

Since that time, Sunlight has provided support to over 50 city halls seeking to develop new open data policies, and as a result the number of mid-sized cities with a policy on the books has nearly doubled.

Scaling democratic norms for the 21st century

The scale of this success is critical to fostering open data as a democratic norm in US cities. Public policy is how we enshrine our democratic values as a society and as open data policy spreads to more and more communities, we are are seeing that democratic value spread as well.

City leaders and the publics they serve are increasingly viewing open data as critical democratic infrastructure for the 21st century: Instead of skeptically questioning “why should we have an open data policy?” more and more city leaders are instead asking “why don’t we have an open data policy already?”

Advancing the field

The progress of our efforts in building the infrastructure of data transparency in What Works Cities should not simply be measured by the quantity of reforms passed, however, but also by the quality of these reforms—by how thoughtful and innovative policy ideas are advancing the field of open data.

We are thrilled to have provided technical assistance in the development of bold new policies that have pushed boundaries and driven the open data movement forward.  Of the ten cities that have committed to the highest number of Sunlight’s open data best practices in official policy, our Open Cities Team supported seven in the development of those policies via the What Works Cities program.

Individual cities have stood out in specific ways:

Policies like the above and many others have collectively raised the bar for what a high-quality municipal infrastructure for data transparency looks like in US cities and in cities globally.

Continuing the work with Sunlight’s policy help desk

Key to our success in scaling and advancing the municipal public policy infrastructure of data transparency has been Sunlight’s democratization of the reform process itself. We’ve put together the most comprehensive suite of city open data policy resources available anywhere, and it’s available online for anyone to use.  As a result, any city official, community advocate, or member of the public with an Internet connection and a desire for a more transparent, accountable, and participatory city is now equipped to develop great open data policy.

Specifically, we’ve taken key steps like those below:

These online tools, combined with Sunlight’s support, constitute what we’re calling our policy help desk, available to anyone looking for help advancing urban open government reforms.

By scaling and democratizing the field of open data policy with our help desk and continued direct technical assistance, we will keep helping cities build and maintain the infrastructure for municipal data transparency in 2017 and beyond.

Holding transparency accountable

In order for data-driven cities to succeed, it is critical that the new civic infrastructure for transparency that these cities’ open data policies and portals represent is democratically designed in ways that are fundamentally reflective of the public interests that public data is meant to serve.  Realizing this imperative, city halls are increasingly seeking to improve public access to information by making transparency initiatives themselves more responsive and accountable. Sunlight’s Open Cities Team is helping to make this happen by ramping up our support for collaborative policy development processes that are driven by online and in-person community feedback.

How ‘crowdlaw’ can bring the public into public policy

There are many reasons city open data programs are increasingly interested in utilizing “crowdlaw,” which we define as a collaborative approach to policy development driven by online public input—for open data policy.

Crowdlaw processes result in better, more informed public policy for data transparency and can also play a key role in fostering the ongoing partnerships and participation needed for open data programs to hold themselves accountable.

For these reasons we believe that crowdlaw and open data policy make a perfect match, and if the demand for open data crowdlaw support in the first two years of What Works Cities is any indication, city governments agree.

To meet city hall demand, we’ve further developed our toolkit and expertise in this area in several ways:

  • We’ve made “draft policy in the open” a standard recommendation for local governments as part of our Public Policy for Public Data checklist.

In What Works Cities like Buffalo, New York, Sunlight’s resources and support have already proven valuable for building a municipal infrastructure of data transparency that is itself accountable and responsive. With our help, the city leveraged the expertise of its community to not only build a better policy but in the process forge new partnerships. Opening up the drafting process connected the city to groups like Open Buffalo and university researchers like Monica Stevens, a professor of geography at CUNY, that will contribute to the ongoing success and sustainability of Buffalo’s infrastructure for data transparency.

Including Buffalo, we’ve supported seven local jurisdictions since 2016. Sunlight has made open data crowdlaw a core part of our technical assistance offerings to support even more cities’ open data programs with better policy made accountable through community feedback and partnerships.

Accountable crowdlaw is better law

This commitment to accountability is not just idealistic. It’s outcome-oriented too. Our preliminary research suggests that crowdlaw practices that hold open data programs accountable to public feedback may be correlated with stronger policy, as measured by the number of open data best practices contained. On average, we see about three additional best practices in the public policy produced through crowdlaw processes when compared to the average jurisdiction with an open data policy.

Likewise, open data programs in concert online public feedback show signs of better open data performance, as measured by a given jurisdiction’s score on the US City Open Data Census. On average, cities score about 600 points higher than the average score.

While these are rough and imperfect measures, they support the conclusion that designing open data programs around processes that include public accountability and feedback is not only good for optics, but good for the bottom line as well.

Fostering participation

As I’ve outlined, Sunlight has made significant progress in supporting the development and advancement of municipal open data policy at scale. We are now expanding our support to help cities design these policies collaboratively, in ways driven by public feedback.

Together, these efforts further a municipal infrastructure for data transparency that is publicly accountable. Sunlight believes every city in the 21st-century should view public participation as a prerequisite for the sustainable, democratic proliferation of data-driven governance programs.

But for the open data movement to live up to its promise in cities — for it to permeate from city hall and into the fabric of the community — building an accountable infrastructure for data transparency must be accompanied not just by programs that use data internally, but also by the use of that infrastructure of transparency by those outside city hall. To realize the value of their investments in open data, city halls must actively facilitate public participation by fostering the reuse of city data to drive community impact.

We believe this much is imperative for the future of the city open data movement. Cities must actively identify opportunities for community reuse of public data and then proceed to facilitate that reuse. This is why we are developing and piloting a new support model for What Works Cities we are calling Tactical Data Engagement to help cities realize this vision for the future.

Piloting participatory open data in Glendale

In Glendale, Arizona, we are working with city hall to re-imagine how that city government might share information in ways best-suited to support the needs of existing community actors who are already working to improve the community, but could do so more effectively with public data.

This has meant working with the City of Glendale to evaluate expressed demand for city information by analyzing public records requests. In doing so, we’re employing a strategy of FOIA-as-open data-demand-sensor that we’ve often advocated for over the years at Sunlight.

Embracing our Tactical Data Engagement approach means more than simply using public records request data to inform the prioritization of open data release. It means starting a dialogue with the human beings who frequently request information to learn more about how and why they are using public records — and how open data might facilitate that use. With this in mind, this spring we will be working with the city to design and conduct interviews with frequent public records requesters. We will then help the city use those interviews to drive plans for how information is ultimately shared proactively online.

One promising use-case has already emerged from Glendale: requests for building permit data could help inform investment in neighborhoods by local real-estate developers. That’s something the local government and neighborhoods themselves would like to encourage in many cases. Talking to the real estate community about their information needs will help further explore and define opportunities to support such neighborhood investment with proactively released open data.

Building on our continued work of scaling an accountable municipal infrastructure for data transparency, we’ll be piloting our tactical data engagement approach in more cities in the months ahead. We will be leveraging community participation to put the new infrastructure of transparency to productive use.

City-making is participatory. City open data should be, too.

Over the past two years, Sunlight has made significant headway in helping cities build the public policy infrastructure for data transparency.

We’ve supported cities in designing this infrastructure to be responsive to public feedback and ultimately accountable to the public interest. We will expand this support in 2017 and beyond.

Now, we’re just getting started helping cities encourage community participation in new transparency measures by actively facilitating the reuse of public data by their communities. There is no greater need for realizing the future of open data-driven cities.

Cities are participatory endeavors.

City-making is a continuous process undertaken not just by a city hall, but by a collective urban ecosystem, comprised of many organizations and individuals.

We have a powerful vision for a data-driven city. If we are to achieve this vision, the use of data and evidence by city halls alone is not enough.

For city-making to be truly data-driven, the multitude of people and institutions who play a role in the process need to apply evidence to drive change.

As the stewards of vast amounts of relevant urban data collected for the public’s benefit, city halls have a crucial role to play in ushering in this future. We know this.

It’s why we care about supporting public officials directly in developing policy and practice, but open data in a vacuum doesn’t get us to the data-democratized future we need.

Building an infrastructure for data transparency is a critical foundation, but it alone is not the answer. Ecosystems of community members addressing urban challenges have been around much longer than the open data movement has. Cities need to meet these people and organizations where they are to learn about how and why data might be reused outside of city hall and to facilitate participation to foster that reuse with impact.

This will be a tall order for cities, but Sunlight is looking forward to helping.