On cities, open data, and storytelling: Meet Alex Dodds, our new Open Cities Storyteller


This week, we’re thrilled to welcome Alexandra Dodds to Sunlight’s Open Cities team! Prior to joining our team, Alex was the communications director at Smart Growth America, where she helped towns and cities learn new approaches to land use, neighborhood design, and urban development policy.

As Sunlight’s new storyteller, Alex will be sharing how cities are putting their open data policies to use as well as listening to your stories about how cities across the country to make government more transparent and effective.

Stephen Larrick, our Open Cities director, sat down with Alex to discuss the perspective she brings to our team and what she’s looking forward working on.

STEPHEN LARRICK: Welcome! We are so glad you’re here.
ALEX DODDS: Thanks! I’m glad to be here.

SL: Tell us a bit about the work you’ve been doing and how it relates to Open Cities.
AD: I’ve spent the last several years advocating for better land use and urban development policies at all levels of government, and helping cities understand how decisions about growth and development can impact local economic, environmental, and social equity outcomes. It was a lot about making cities work better for the people who live there. Sunlight’s Open Cities work is obviously closely connected to that.

SL: What common themes do you see between advocacy for development and open data?
AD: There are two big similarities that I see. One is that they both encourage cities to take a step back and ask, “Is what we’re doing working?” and “Could we be doing it better?” A big part of my previous work was showing cities that they have choices. Choices about whether to build new roads or new transit, or whether to invest in a subdivision or their historic downtown. There are pros and cons to each of those options. We were there to help cities see those options and show the tradeoffs between them, but it was up to the cities to decide which path to take. Open data has a similar focus on helping city staff think about their work in new ways.

The second theme is about making residents an integral part of the process. Both approaches recognize that no matter how good a program or idea may seem to the staff working on it, giving everyone in a community a chance to understand it and weigh in will make it better. That was the number one question we asked in every community we worked with: “Are you doing this cooperatively with residents?” Letting residents see what’s going on in government and empowering them to participate in the process is what open data is all about, too.

SL: That’s a very Sunlight-y thing you just said. So how does storytelling fit in?
AD: Any participatory process—whether it’s in government or on a sports team or a social movement—needs storytelling. Storytelling helps big, diverse groups come together around a shared understanding of challenges and goals. And in the context of government, storytelling can help leaders and residents come together to solve those goals.

The great thing about open data is that sometimes city staff lead that process and sometimes it’s city residents. The data is available to anyone, so a local neighborhood group or community organization can use that information to advance the story of their own work. My job will be to share stories like that from across the country, so other staff and residents in other cities can see how open data can help solve their own challenges.

SL: Do you have an example of where storytelling has shed light on a city’s open data?
AD: One example is in Kansas City, where thousands of families are at risk of lead paint exposure. In 2016, the Kansas City Star detailed how devastating lead paint exposure can be to individual children and larger communities. The piece discussed Lead Safe KC, a city program to remediate homes contaminated with lead paint, but neglected to mention how Lead Safe KC makes data about its remediation work publicly available. The city presents that same information as a map as well, giving Kansas City families more information about the risks in their current home or their next one.

That’s just one example of how a city can connect open data with the challenges their residents face day-to-day. Storytelling with open data can motivate people to take action on an issue in ways they might not otherwise.

SL: You’ve talked a lot about a city’s residents and government staff. What about technologists? What’s their role in all this?
AD: Data specialists do amazing work. Data can shed light on city issues in ways that no other tool in a mayor’s toolbox can, and open data is about making those tools available to as many people as possible. But no matter how cool the advances in aggregation and parsing, this work always needs to be rooted in the issues facing a community of people. We can never be reminded of that too often.

SL: That seems like good advice for anyone who wants their city to be better.
AD: Definitely. Open data at its core is about helping not just a few individuals thrive but creating systems where lots of people, in any community, can have the information and insights needed to inform both city-making and democratic decision making. That’s a little cheesy but it’s the incredibly hopeful goal behind this work. That’s why I’m so exciting to be joining the team here and the work you all are doing.

Learn more about the stories of cities using open data and all the work of Sunlight’s Open Cities team by signing up for our mailing list, at sunlightfoundation.com/join.