The evolution of our approach to Tactical Data Engagement


Sunlight officially released A Guide to Tactical Data Engagement today, our new resource designed to help city leaders and residents collaborate on improving the social impact of open government data. The guide builds on a strong foundation of ideas as well as feedback from city staff and community partners across the country. That community and their feedback helped shape this new edition of the guide.

When we announced the public Beta version of the guide in March, we asked for your feedback on our ideas. We were thrilled by the response! The guide received plenty of attention, yielded dozens of comments, and spurred important conversations among our networks of governance experts, advocates, and city leaders. Following are the major lessons learned from the feedback that informed our changes to the guide.

Be clear

We heard from you that Sunlight’s vision for TDE could be clearer and that the practices we propose in the guide should drive you toward it. In other words, name the goal. Don’t dance around what you want your audience to take away.

The Beta version of guide was framed around connecting open data to residents’ lives. Grounding our perspective in this context and promise of increased public access to information enabling more participatory democracy, is an accurate reflection of our goals as an organization, but we missed the mark in expressing exactly what we hoped our guide would do.

In response, a more specific goal we have for our TDE guide is to be a resource that cities will use it to actively facilitate the community use of open data. We’ve now made our focus clearer and described what it means in more practical terms.

Be focused

In the beta version of the TDE guide, our process included some details on existing concepts and approaches that were not core to our vision. For example, we including a step on developing performance metrics. There is plenty of expertise out there on measuring outcomes. We are not going to attempt to add to it.

Your feedback highlighted how some non-essential processes emphasized the wrong things, and as a result, distracted from the TDE vision. The six-step process from the beta is now slimmed down to four, all focused on the central theme of facilitating community use of open data:

Distinguish agnostic and specific open data use

After writing our first iteration of the guide, we realized that we needed to avoid recommending agnostic facilitation of the use of open data without making clear that facilitation should be pointed, targeted, and specific. Here’s some more insight into what these ideas mean in practice.

By “agnostic facilitation,” we mean making an assumption that a certain intervention — like incorporating a data standard, adding an API, mapping or visualizing data — will facilitate reuse. These interventions do lower barriers to the community use of open data, but they do not actively support specific opportunities for data use. Agnostic facilitation also means that interventions are not necessarily driven by residents’ needs. For both reasons, agnostic facilitation can miss opportunities to generate social impact from open data.

By “specific facilitation,” we mean the process of continuously narrowing a project’s scope and checking outcomes against residents’ needs. This approach means letting feedback from relevant stakeholders with information needs drive interventions to facilitate community data use. For example, feedback from real estate stakeholders could give city planners guidance that a data standard or API would be less helpful to them than a guide on how to use property data. Or that a map would be helpful, but only if done in a certain way that will be revealed by talking to its potential users.

Connect steps to tactics

Our beta guide included a table for “framing” tactics and “action” tactics. You told us it was hard to figure out how these tactics fit together into a coherent process. In the new version of the TDE, our description for each of the four process steps now includes tactics that support it.

Our list of tactics will continue to expand and evolve. We’ve asked for more of your examples of tactics and look forward to hearing from you!

Connect case studies to tactics

You also told us to rethink our case studies, so we’ve omitted them from this release of the guide. Instead, we’re building out a case-study tracker that matches cases to the tactics they exemplify.

This way, it will be easier to (a) separate good tactics from the context of programs that were unsuccessful for other reasons, and (b) to map cases directly to our TDE method, thereby clarifying their instructional value. Our new approach to case studies will also include providing instruction on how to replicate the tactics. For example, forthcoming playbooks will explain how to host data user groups and civic “scope-a-thons.”

What’s next

While we are absolutely thrilled to have this official first version of the guide out in the open, we’re already looking ahead to the future.

Our goals for the next few months are to:

  1. Build out the suite of resources around the TDE guide and continue to update our evidence and success stories for the tactics.
  2. Continue piloting TDE with our partners to test the methodology, including Glendale, Arizona, which has worked with us since the first release of our guide. We plan to create an intervention with that helps Glendale residents better use open data.
  3. Launch a comprehensive TDE website, featuring links to all existing resources and new features, like updates on Sunlight’s TDE pilot cities and an adaptable checklist for mixing and matching tactics.

Thank you

We would not be where we are today without the wonderful feedback and engagement from members of the What Works Cities program and open government communities around the United States.

Thank you also to everyone who went above and beyond to offer feedback on the guide, including Josh Kalov, Forrest Gregg, Tim Moreland, our colleagues at the Center for Government Excellence, and our friends and connections on social media. We particularly appreciate our innovative friends at the City of Glendale for taking time to provide thoughtful and constructive feedback on our work to date.

The most important thing left to do is to keep collecting feedback from readers and users of the TDE guide. If you have used any TDE tactics and would like to share, or if you are interested in helping Sunlight pilot this method, or if you have other comments on this guide and its resources, fill out our short survey form or send us an email. We would love to know about what you’re working on and how the TDE approach fits in.