Memphis, TN uses a crowdlaw approach for its new open data policy

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The crowd at Memphis’ annual River Arts Fest. Photo via Chose901.

On February 1, 2017 Mayor Jim Strickland unveiled the City of Memphis, Tennessee’s new open data policy and performance dashboard, two steps toward his administration’s ambitious goal to be the most communicative and transparent in city history.

Sunlight is proud to have worked with Memphis as part of What Works Cities. Over the last several months we’ve collaborated with city staff to help draft their new policy, and as always, we congratulate Memphis for this policy that will make city data open by default.

We’re particularly excited about Memphis’ work, however, because the city created this policy in collaboration with residents using crowdlaw, a relatively new part of our standard recommendations for cities. You can read all about what crowdlaw is and how your city can use this approach in our new guide “Participatory open data policy”, which we published on January 22.

Memphis’s work inviting public collaboration and comments is a great example of crowdlaw in action. We sat down with Craig Hodge and Nick Walker, both from the city’s Office of Performance Management, to find out what Memphis learned from the crowdlaw process and how it will inform their work moving forward.

Noel Isama: So first of all congrats! Passing an open data policy is a big accomplishment.
Craig Hodge: Thanks. Everyone in city hall from the mayor on down here is committed to transparent and communicative government and this policy is part of that.

NI: What made you want to use a crowdlaw approach?
Nick Walker: Well, we knew what we wanted out of the policy, and we thought we had a good idea of what the community members wanted, but no amount of assuming can take the place of asking residents directly and giving them a chance to weigh in. Being open and transparent is the means as well as the ends.

NI: Sometimes that type of openness is intimidating for city staff. Was it hard to convince your colleagues to do crowdlaw?
CH: No they were totally receptive to it. The platform that we used, Madison, had a lot of examples of how other cities have done crowdlaw and the types of responses those cities have seen. Being able to show that to our colleagues really helped them see the potential of this process.

NI: So city staff got the picture and you posted it on Madison. After that you just wave a magic wand and everyone in the city submits comments, right?
CH: If only. The team at Sunlight helped us do a lot of outreach. We invited participation from some key people working on related issues at the same time as doing outreach to the general public. Most people commented using the website, but some people emailed us their comments and we included those too. We didn’t just passively wait for people to weigh in — we were proactive.

NI: What did you hear residents saying?
NW: Mostly people want to have a say in what datasets get released. That was one of the most common comments we heard. Residents want to make sure that leading community groups — nonprofits, the university and academic world, businesses, activist groups — are included in the data governance process and that their access to that process is fair and equal to everyone.

We also heard from residents about how we should license open data to the people who download it. There are a lot of licensing models out there, and we’ll have to choose which to use. Our new policy directs a Data Governance Committee to be created — there will be participation from the individual divisions that make up the city government as well as the office of the chief information officer. It’s going to be more appropriate for the members of that committee to decide on a licensing model. We’re going to make sure they understand how important this question is for residents.

NI: It seems like the chief information officer’s office will be an important part of that.
CH: Definitely. The city’s chief information officer, Mike Rodriguez, is a major proponent of open data and understands the value of partnering with our community user groups. The crowdlaw process was only the beginning of our public engagement around open data, and we will be working with CIO Rodriguez moving forward to increase the community’s involvement and learn more about what data is most important to residents.

NI: How does an open data program fit in with the city’s bigger priorities?
CH: When Mayor Strickland ran for office, he promised to measure the city’s performance and share those results with the public, both the good and the bad. An open data program is the next step in that process.

NI: That sounds like democracy at its best.
NW: The performance management program has been in place since the beginning of the Mayor’s administration, and we’ve been able to share our insights with other city staff on a regular basis. But to have the public be a partner in this discussion now is something I’m really looking forward to.

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