Beyond open data policy


Earlier this year, Sunlight’s Open Cities team updated its mission to reflect a shifting tide within our team and in the greater open government community. When our team’s work began in 2013, advocates for government transparency faced challenges accessing and acquiring information that should rightfully be in the public domain. Five years on, we still face challenges in basic access to information in local government, but we’re looking forward with broader goals for how cities share information and engage residents. In the field, we’re seeing innovation around access to government services become equally as important as access to public information. And we’re seeing cities seek mechanisms for public participation that help democratize power in pursuit of fair, equitable local government.

The Open Cities team is looking beyond making information accessible in the service of democracy, toward helping cities develop a holistically more open culture through data and technology.

We’ve come a long way in helping cities establish strong foundations for openness through open data policies, transparency initiatives, and open data portals. Two weeks ago, we released our Open Data Policy Hub, which is a culmination of our last three years promoting open data policy and practice through the What Works Cities program, using our fundamental open data policy guidelines. To date, we’ve counted 122 open data policies in local governments across the U.S.

Our work in the open data space, along with the work of our partners, has helped create the legal and societal expectation that residents have a right to public information. We’ve substantially contributed to the current state of open government in U.S. cities such that openness is no longer just a goal, but an expectation for a healthy local government.

Almost exactly a year ago, we released our Guide to Tactical Data Engagement v1.0 to extend the impact of open data in cities. Tactical Data Engagement is a framework we developed to guide What Works cities through a process that helps find opportunities for open data applications that meet local residents’ real needs. The framework has roots in human-centered design, tactical urbanism, and equity-driven community engagement.

Our team piloted this approach in Madison, WI, Glendale, AZ, Norfolk, VA, and Austin, TX. Our pilot work has equipped us with replicable tools and strategies to help cities do demand-driven problem scoping, design research, co-design, and collaboration in ways that center the lived experience of their residents. We’ve started to apply those techniques in our pilots to support user-centered open contracting reform with the Open Contracting Partnership.

Through our pilots, we’ve learned how cities can engage residents creatively and intentionally to inform the release of open data and to leverage open data to do meaningful work. The success here is not only that cities are learning to get impact out of open data, but that they are opening their processes to untapped audiences, and inviting residents to have a real impact on how things get done.

This kind of holistic openness is what we want to see in the future of tech and data in cities. Without transparency that enables open processes in addition to open data and open source tech, we do not stand a chance at addressing the real power inequities that exist in cities. That’s why we’re bringing our advocacy lens to events like the Open Cities Summit, where we’ll discuss how the lessons we’ve learned using open data as a tool for empowerment can help us build open smart cities. Opening government means more than sharing data and applying innovative technology — it means enabling residents to have an equal say in things that happen in their city. 

Our experience working with residents on sharing and using open data this last year has taught us something important: to discount no one person’s perspective.

In working on issues of homelessness, neighborhood well-being, and flooding resilience, we’ve spoken with residents from a multitude of backgrounds and perspectives, some familiar with open data, and some for whom “open data” as a concept is largely irrelevant. But despite residents’ backgrounds or interests, and despite their life’s current situation, we could always find an opportunity for them to receive better public information, or in our terms, more accessible open data. Because they owned homes, sent their kids to school, used the bus, or needed services from the city, residents needed to know something from their local government, and often they wanted to have a hand in what happened next. Because we live in a democracy, we are all entitled to this kind of access to information and to government itself.

This is important to me on a personal level. My mother and father immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia and Armenia, respectively. I know about their struggle to navigate an inaccessible system: How they raced to learn English so that they could find jobs, how they were the first in their families to enroll in night school to get better jobs and provide for their families, how they had to work so much harder than their American counterparts for less pay, and how they struggled to navigate exclusionary legal and bureaucratic systems along the way. In many ways, governments failed to create equal opportunity for my parents and their families, and I want to ensure that we incorporate the voices of people like them into the next phase of government innovation so that this stops happening.

In my parents’ stories, I also recognize a theme we see present to this day: Governments that fail to engage or that explicitly exclude vulnerable members of our communities are a failure of modern democracy (though, in many cases, they’re working exactly as intended). We need a more open culture in local government to right the wrongs of inequity of power. Emerging technology and innovations in data use should enable us to right these wrongs. By using the tools at our disposal to empower residents with holistic access to information and to government, we can work toward a more open local culture. When armed with the tools to engage and hold government to account, people of all walks of life can no longer be silenced.