Who are the most common commenters on open data policies?

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Editor’s Note: This post is the second in our series analyzing public feedback on draft open data policies hosted on the Madison platform. The first post discussed which topics are the most commonly discussed in comments on open data policies. This post is focused on understanding who comments on draft open data policies that are published online.

A number of cities have invited feedback on draft open data policies — but who actually participates? Our analysis of 164 comments made by 65 users on the online drafts posted by 9 American cities found a sizable number of people who comment work for private tech companies and the government, and mostly engage on technical topics.

What do commenters do?

When a user comments on an open data policy on Madison, however, they are only required to fill out their name. With only this information, it is difficult to know the demographic breakdown of commenters. To find out more, for each of the 65 users who commented on the nine open data policies on Madison, we researched their personal background using publicly available information online and from sources such as LinkedIn, personal websites, and employer websites. We found information about the employer and occupation of 58 percent of these commenters. Note that our analysis of this information is only as accurate as the available information, and fundamentally limited due to the small absolute number of people.

Of those users whose employers we were able to identify, 38 percent work for private companies. These companies are a mix of startups and digital agencies that provide services in IT, GIS, data visualization, search engine optimization (SEO) and management consulting. About a third of the commenters with known employers work in different levels of government. Academics and researchers — who come from a wide variety of disciplines including urban planning, education, and environmental management — made up 19 percent of people participating in open data policy-making who we could identify.

A majority of the commenters that we identified have technical backgrounds in software development, civic technology, statistics, data science, and more.

Given these backgrounds, we’d expect the language and kind of issues that dominate discussion to reflect it. Most comments they made were technical, discussing issues such as adopting data standards, availability of metadata, APIs, and storing data in a central repository.

Takeaway: Cities should engage more of their residents

The small overall number of comments on many of the policies and its skew toward more technical people suggest that governments need feedback from a larger and more diverse group of their residents. Some strategies include:

  • Directly seek participation through questionnaires, as the City of Buffalo has done
  • Use email and social media to more effectively encourage public participation, as Washington, DC did
  • Emphasize the importance of collaborative policymaking in town hall meetings
  • Look at other best practices documented by Sunlight, like using Google Docs to share open data policy and inviting residents to comment on online forums
  • Convene “edit-a-thons” at libraries, schools and universities
  • Inform the public using traditional media outreach to local publishers, including newspapers, TV and radio

Technologists and government workers are some of the most readily engaged commenters on draft open data policies. They bring useful expertise and are valuable collaborators, but ultimately open data should reflect the needs and priorities of everyone in a community. Proactively reaching out to residents beyond these communities for comment is an important part of any city’s open data policy work.

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