As 2017 draws to a close, we’re taking a look back at our work this year helping cities make government data more open and available. Here is a recap of what happened and what we’re looking forward to in the year to come.
City data on the national stage
2017 was one of the most tumultuous years in recent political memory for the United States. This was the year that Time magazine asked whether truth is dead, and when “alternative facts” and “fake news” became household terms. It has been a year when working on transparency and evidence in government is more important — and more challenging — than ever before.
Throughout the year cities have become some of the most hopeful models of what innovative, transparent, and accountable government looks like. Cities and city open data also presented new insights into long-term national challenges.
This year the country grappled with police killings of Black Americans, marches by white supremacists, and debates over confederate statues. As they did, we showed how open city data fits in to racial equity work.
This year saw catastrophic hurricanes hit Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida, and Houston. We showed the ways open data can help residents prepare for and recover from disaster by connecting people to life-saving information about evacuation routes, flooding, and resource centers.
This year, as data has been removed from federal websites under the Trump Administration, cities like Chicago, Syracuse, and stepped up to house copies of that data and protect it. In line with these efforts, earlier this year we collaborated with Data Refuge, which is working to preserve that data.
Federal data continues to be under threat under this administration. In particular, the 2020 U.S. Census is in jeopardy. In October we published new findings about how American cities rely on federal data, particularly the Census. We are planning to continue fighting for access to these federal datasets in the months to come.
And that won’t be our only fight for open data in cities nationwide. To help cities protect access to information while also protecting individuals, this year we published a guide to protecting data and protecting residents, which aims to help local governments craft thoughtful practices and policies to protect their residents in difficult times through appropriately protecting their data.
New local policies across the country
Cities, meanwhile, took new steps to expand public access to public information, be more transparent, and engage residents. This year 23 cities adopted open data policies, nearly as many as the 26 cities that did so in 2016. As of today, a total of 97 U.S. cities and 12 states have passed open data policies, and we expect that number to continue growing in 2018.
We expect that number to grow in part because it’s now easier than ever for cities to create their own open data policy. This year we created an open data policy wizard, which is everything you ever loved about Mad Libs and public policy creation in one easy-to-use and completely free tool.
This year cities also made the process of creating open data policies more participatory. In true open government fashion, many cities are putting draft open data policies online for public comment. As of today, 31 draft open data policies have been shared for public comment, including 14 from Sunlight’s partner cities in 2017 alone. We began keeping track of every city that does this with our Open Data Policy Crowdlaw Tracker, published in January, where you can also see the archived comments on the original draft. To give cities a leg up on creating a great open data policy, we also published a list of the most common comments and commenters. Washington DC was one of the cities that invited public comments on its draft open data policy—including from our own staff (who had opinions about the policy as open data experts as well as DC residents). In March we wrote about what other cities can learn from DC’s successful public engagement work.
Finally, cities are putting their data understanding to use with projects to make city procurement more transparent and effective. Cities spend billions of dollars every year on goods and services, yet residents are often in the dark when it comes to knowing who these contracts go to, and how much is being spent. Together with our friends at the Open Contracting Partnership we looked at best practices in municipal open contracting and released policy guidelines for municipal open contracting.
Moving from policy to impact
With so many cities passing open data policies, Sunlight’s Open Cities team is turning our focus to a new frontier: putting that data to use with what we refer to as Tactical Data Engagement (TDE).
In March we published the beta version of our TDE guide, which borrowed from the fields of tactical urbanism and human centered design to increase the social impact of open data. In keeping with our commitment to transparency we asked for comments and suggestions for how to make the guide better, and tested out some of those ideas at What Works Cities On Tour in Scottsdale, Arizona in May.
After several months of feedback and revisions we published the official first version of the guide in September. The official first edition includes a simplified, four-step process and more than two dozen ideas for specific tactics. As part of the kickoff we hosted an online panel discussion about the new guide, and were joined by speakers at Reboot, Case Western Reserve University, the City of Madison, Wisconsin, who are putting these ideas into practice.
Many of the ideas outlined in our TDE guide warrant full discussions of their own. To give them each the attention they deserve, we launched a series of TDE Playbooks which will examine several of the strategies in more depth. The series kicked off with a playbook on Data User Groups, based on the outstanding work of the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center.
Now we’re seeing how these ideas really work with our first-ever TDE pilot, currently underway in Madison, Wisconsin. We were there for two weeks in November interviewing community leaders and looking for ways data could advance their work. We brought some of the best of what we learned in Madison to the What Works Cities on Tour convening in Charlotte, North Carolina earlier this fall.
Learning from city leaders
This year we also learned from some of the people leading this work nationwide. We’ve heard city staff talk openly and vulnerably about the challenges of doing this work, whether it’s a lack of support from leadership, colleagues who don’t see the value in open government, or fear of criticism from residents. These conversations have made us reflect deeply on our work, and think about how we can better help the city staff working to make their communities better for everyone.
In Des Moines, Iowa, city data showed that chronic diabetes was responsible for a significant number of 911 calls. Sharing that information publicly could empower the city to address the problem from a public health perspective. In February, Des Moines made that data open and we were there to celebrate.
We spoke with the City of Boston’s Open Data team, who realized that residents don’t always use the word “data”—but that doesn’t mean they don’t want information. We spoke with Buffalo, New York about why they choose crowdlaw, and shared how Durham, North Carolina made its policy process participatory.
We spoke with open data staff from Kansas City, Missouri about the Facebook chatbot they created that helps residents understand open data. We also spoke with the team in Chattanooga, Tennessee who saw that post and made a chatbot of their own.
We learned how New York City opened more data and held themselves accountable to their open data goals. We shared the story of a journalist in Atlanta who didn’t let closed data stop her from figuring out where public housing dollars were going. And we shared how Sioux Falls, South Dakota is using open data to improve neighborhood services.
Expanding our community of practice
Finally, throughout this year we’ve had the privilege to share our work, what we’ve learned, and learn new things in return from several communities of practice.
In February we brought a city open data perspective to TransportationCamp, an unconference focused on transportation and technology, where we saw how valuable it is for government agencies to use common data standards.
In March we joined the annual What Works Cities Summit and met with city leaders from across the country working to make their government more effective and efficient. That month we also brought together the open government community during Sunshine Week, where we shared some of the shining examples of government transparency currently at work in cities. In addition, we brought together open data technologists on International Open Data Day to discuss the state of open data in the United States under the new administration.
In April we attended the Hometown Summit in Charlottesville, Virginia, which brought together leaders from smaller cities to discuss strategies for addressing local challenges. This event got us thinking about how cities of any size, including smaller cities, can move toward more transparent and accountable governance and the specific steps they can take to participate in the open data movement.
To give these communities of practice a more prominent and permanent place in Sunlight’s portfolio of advocacy, this year we also launched a new Twitter handle and bi-weekly Open Cities newsletter which, naturally, we encourage everyone to follow.
If nothing else, 2017 has been a year of momentous social upheaval across the country. During this turbulent time, Americans have looked to their cities for leadership, and cities, for their part, are demonstrating open and transparent government in a way that the federal administration could learn from.
If you support open government in your city or cities nationwide, make a donation to the Sunlight Foundation today. Donations are 100% tax-deductible, and will go toward our work helping government at all levels be more open, accountable, and transparent.
We are grateful to have worked alongside so many people making their communities better this past year. We’re looking forward to even more good work in the year to come.