An emoji story of transition, farewell, and new beginnings (Credit: Stephen Larrick, emoji from EmojiOne)
During my time at Sunlight, I’ve become known for being willing to share (or perhaps overshare) details about my life openly and honestly with my colleagues. This tendency eventually gave rise to the only-half-in-jest, alter-ego/verbal hashtag: #OpenStephen.
So, in the true spirit of #OpenStephen it’s time for some personal and professional transparency. Today I’m sharing that after three years in Washington, DC, my wife Sarah and I have moved to New York City, and as part of that move, I’m leaving my role as Open Cities Director at the Sunlight Foundation. My official last day will be July 13th—my three year anniversary with Sunlight to the day. Leaving Sunlight is bittersweet, but it’s time for me to take on new challenges in a new city, and with a strong foundation and promising direction, the Open Cities team I’m proud to have built is ready for new leadership.
It’s been a dream job to work on place-based open government here at the Sunlight. Back when I was working inside city hall as Director of Planning for the City of Central Falls, RI, I used to fanboy over the Sunlight Foundation—and its vision for a more collaboratively driven, and publicly accountable 21st-century democracy. In fact, I started working with Sunlight even before I was working at Sunlight, both as a member of Rhode Island’s Code for America Brigade (adorably named, Code Island) contributing to the Sunlight-managed US City Open Data Census, and in my role in Central Falls city hall collaborating on a project with OpportunitySpace, a Sunlight OpenGov grant recipient.
I’m tremendously grateful to all the colleagues and partners I’ve worked with since joining the Sunlight team and the What Works Cities partner consortium in the summer of 2015. Together, we’ve made a ton of progress over the last three years, during a time of acute change and transition both for the open government space and for Sunlight as an organization.
Together, we built upon the groundbreaking work of the Sunlight Local Policy team, translating theory into practice and research into action in cities across the US. We built on our open data policy guidelines to create a model policy “firestarter” and eventually even developed a policy wizard to make it easy for any policymaker, city hall champion, or community advocate to get started in drafting meaningful access-to-information reform. To address the problem of open data policy that isn’t itself open, we collected the Internet’s largest repository of municipal access to information policies and built opendatapolicies.org to share them as open textual data, tagged by our best practices to make them easy to search, download, compare, and remix. Together, we advanced the practice of municipal crowdlaw, writing case studies, tracking examples, and creating new guidance for open and collaborative policy-making. And together we organized all these tools for open data reform into a simple checklist to make taking action as easy as possible for advocates and governments alike.
This work supported our team’s provision of direct technical assistance to dozens of mid-sized US cities, and it brought results. Since our launch of Sunlight’s What Works Cities support in April of 2015, the number of open data policies adopted by US local governments has more than doubled, representing a massive shift toward openness in community democratic norms across the country.
During my time at Sunlight, we worked with dozens of mid-sized US cities and hundreds of city staff dedicated to making local government more transparent and accountable, many of whom are pictured here at the 2017 What Works City Summit. (Credit: Results for America)
Together, we didn’t just help bring these existing good ideas to scale, but contributed important new ideas to the evolution of place-based open government, helping open data grow up. We took a hard look in the mirror and identified the need to connect open data to social impact. Drawing from human-centered design and from my own experience with participatory urbanism, we reconceptualized government transparency as an essential 21st-century service—one that should be proactively designed to meet the varied information needs of its varied users: that is, the individuals and community groups who together compose the “public.” We researched, developed, and launched our Tactical Data Engagement framework to address this need, and supported new people-centered approaches to applied open data in a handful of US cities, where we’re already capturing valuable insights, and piloting interventions to facilitate community use of public data. I’m genuinely excited to follow along as the team continues this critical work in the next phase of the What Works Cities initiative and beyond.
This evolution of our work and of our approach to open data took place with an increasing awareness that efficiency and technology alone are not enough for the open government movement to improve democracies in the context of urban places. As I bid farewell to the Sunlight Open Cities team I’m perhaps most buoyed by my confidence in the deep reflection and commitment our team made this spring as we reformulated our team mission into a set of values explicitly focused on open government as a vehicle for urban equity and social justice.
These are values the Open Cities team will continue to champion going forward under the new leadership of my colleague Katya Abazajian, who will do a terrific job taking over my role as Open Cities Director. This is a team that knows that most if not all cities have deep legacies of exclusionary governance—driven by racism, colonialism, wealth inequality, and other forms of discrimination—and that in this context, place-based open government must inherently be about urban justice. Opening up access to public information is a critical action in service of this goal, but let us be explicit: the fundamental goal is more equitable access to public decision-making for those who have been excluded. The goal is to redistribute power to those who don’t have it. This is a truth that needs proclamation and defending now more than ever.
As the world’s population increasingly aggregates in urban centers, open urban government can pave the way for the right to the city for our most disenfranchised communities. As rising nationalism and rhetoric of new border walls threaten to divide nations, our cities—who have long since torn down their defensive walls, whose borders are inherently open, and whose governments therefore must serve every resident—can provide a much-needed alternative vision for a societal future of inclusion. As corporations and “smart cities” vendors co-opt power from public institutions and risk driving further inequality by exploiting the most vulnerable residents of the city via proprietary data collection and black-box algorithms, open cities are needed to ensure not just efficiency but equity and accountability for our 21st-century democratic future.
These values are what drives me to work in this space, and as I look to continue working on these issues (wherever my next steps take me in my career), I’m glad the Sunlight Open Cities team will be here to fight for these values as well.
“Impression, Sun(light)rise” by Stephen Larrick [remixed from Monet (duh)]
If you are interested in fighting alongside us, you can reach the Open Cities team and its new director Katya Abazajian at email@example.com, and you can always reach me at @slarrick on Twitter (DMs open) and at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you to each of my colleagues at Sunlight, past and present, that I have had the tremendous privilege of working with and learning from. Thank you also to our partner organizations on What Works Cities, to our funders—most notably at Bloomberg Philanthropies—and to our collaborators, far too many to mention in full here.
I’ve been looking for the perfect quote to close with, ideally from someone like Lefebvre, but sometimes, when you want to say a particular thing, you need to say it yourself, imperfectly. So here goes: one of the things I love most about cities is that they represent a certain kind of human continuity and togetherness. Despite the skyscrapers, inherent in city-making is a humility verging on ego-death that gives me comfort right now. No one owns the city, we share it—we grow it and cultivate it together. And we are all responsible for making it better for everyone by reshaping what we have inherited. Teams and movements work like cities do. They are built over time by multiple people, with each making active contributions and leaving passive traces to be reinvented and reinterpreted by those who follow. A building is repurposed. Ghost signs tell stories of local histories. Horse watering troughs become fountains and planters.
I hope I’ve contributed in some small way to a larger vision of more open and just urban communities and am humbled for any traces I’ve left to be reinterpreted and reinvented by this next iteration of the Sunlight team.