A Modular Approach to Tactical Data Engagement


Last week, the Open Cities team released the Roadmap to Informed Communities, hoping to guide open data champions through our Tactical Data Engagement (TDE) framework and provide modular resources for problem-scoping, user research, co-creation, and community partnerships for open data.

Since our initial release of a Guide to Tactical Data Engagement in 2017, Sunlight Open Cities has conducted pilot studies of the framework in several cities around the U.S. Our work with Glendale, Madison, Austin, and Norfolk allowed us to refine the TDE approach, while keeping the key strategies of TDE at the forefront:

Open data needs a focus to be effective

Data with an unclear focus will have unclear impact. Data providers inside and outside of city governments should consider which issues their data will help to address before they decide to share and promote engagement with that data. Part of sharing human-centered open data at a city level means ensuring that open data is not only tied to a specific issue, but that that issue is relevant in supporting the local community.

For example, cities should not publish data on transit just because the data exists, but also because community members have indicated that they want the city to improve transit and provide more transparency around transit-related issues. Data providers can leverage problem scoping strategies like the ones that we’ve built into Step 1: Find to ensure that open data sets or projects are grounded in issues that communities care about.

Cities should invest in understanding data users

In private industries, customer segmentation and market research are essential for businesses to understand and meet their clients’ needs. If local governments want to be more effective in fighting pressing local challenges, they need to invest in design research to understand and document their stakeholders’ needs. We think that focusing in on residents’ data and information needs provides a helpful framing that can ground this research in actionable opportunities for impact.

Unlike in private industries, local governments have a democratic responsibility to provide equal opportunity and access to public data and services for all residents. Segmenting current and potential data users can not only help local governments build stronger understanding of their constituencies but can also help them focus in on supporting potential data users with the highest need. Data providers can leverage user-centered design strategies like the ones we outlined in Step 2: Refine to start building a thorough understanding of their residents’ data and information needs.

Residents want a say in how public data and tech are applied

The public should always have an opportunity to contribute to the decision-making behind technology and data projects that will ultimately affect them. In general, inviting stakeholder participation in project design can help improve the effectiveness of the end product in meeting stakeholders’ needs. Specifically, local governments have a responsibility to open their decision-making to local residents when it comes to experimentation and innovation using public data and technology.

Data providers must incorporate resident input, either through user testing, survey efforts, or hands-on co-creation, into the open data pilot projects to ensure that end products of open data projects will actually meet stakeholders’ needs. By designing with members of their communities, local government staff can also work to ensure that their data and tech projects are designed by inclusive, diverse teams. Data providers and local government staff alike can use co-creation strategies like the ones we outline in Step 3: Design to begin engaging their residents to design effective products.

Institutions need to pony up for community partnerships

Without concrete commitments to community partnerships and collaboration, open data projects between data providers and users may lack sustainability and real impact. Different types of projects to open up or apply public data require different levels of commitment on the part of data providers or local governments. Tactical Data Engagement provides an opportunity for local governments to reconsider exactly how they partner with their constituencies across the board, and may encourage them to think outside the box when it comes to taking a hands-on, human-centered approach to fostering community problem-solving and innovation with tech and data.

Data providers can use the strategies and tools we provide in Step 4: Implement to better evaluate their own capacity to be true partners with their local data users. Governments in particular should be aware that data and tech-driven community collaborations will deteriorate without formalized commitments to institutional support.