Sunlight’s Open Cities team has collected dozens of user personas that city governments or public data providers have used to help map and understand their open data users. Having a clear understanding of who is using open data and how they’re using it gives data providers the power to tailor public information to residents’ needs for maximal impact.
We’ve built an Open Data User Persona Library, a collection of these user personas, to inspire and demonstrate how getting a more holistic understanding of communities’ needs can change how city governments design open data programs and portals. For example, cities are using these personas to find users who could need open data that’s already available online, but who maybe don’t have the data skillset or internet access to engage with the public offerings.
The insights that personas offer can help data providers to appropriately design open data offerings for specific community open data users. Personas can also help to communicate specific user characteristics to external partners as well as internal staff.
Personas are valuable because they represent abstract information on a human level. They can help data administrators to visualize the pipeline from open data to local impact.
What are user personas?
A user persona is a fictional character who might use a product. They are composites made up of anonymous traits that can be compiled rigorously using interviews with individuals. In the last couple of years, user personas have started gaining traction in local government innovation because public sector decision-makers began using personas to think through the potential impacts of open data portals.
We cannot assume that open data portals are automatically useful to residents. In order to gauge their effectiveness, cities need to ask: Who is accessing open data — and who isn’t? What do communities need that can be found in open data? Without asking these questions, we don’t know how well open data is serving the diverse interests of the community. All residents must be considered as potential data users, and we can only engage them if we know how to reach and mobilize them.
Open data user personas can institutionalize insights about current and potential open data and technology users in institutional memory, and can help city staff better visualize the communities that they serve.
Community-centered or human-centered design strategies in general can help city staff keep their stakeholders’ needs within their scope of awareness as they manage open data. When it comes to creating an efficient open data economy that supports civic engagement, cities have their work cut out for them. But by investing in the design of user-centered open data platforms, cities can foster more successful civic engagement initiatives, strengthening city effectiveness and public trust.
Who uses open data?
This is the question that Sunlight’s Open Cities team explored through Tactical Data Engagement pilots in 2017 and 2018. In a strong culture of civic engagement, people shouldn’t just have access to data, they should be able to use it to achieve things they care about.
Consider a single parent who wants to know the graduation rates of local schools, a PhD candidate who needs access to police complaint data, a real estate developer who is competing for access to calls for contracts, or a community organizer who is building an advocacy argument for education reform. Residents approach open data sets from many angles, play varying roles, and have distinct motivations. User personas provide the capacity to condense such stories into informative and relatable prototypes.
Some cities are already using personas for setting design priorities and open data curation. We helped the City of Madison, for example, use personas to map out data needs related to Complete Neighborhoods, and we helped develop a toolkit for helping nonprofit service providers access neighborhood data to help them win more grants and better track their impact. Personas helped target our open data solution to the specific needs of a clear user group in the community who needed to use data to do their essential work keeping neighborhoods afloat.
Why user personas matter for the public sector
A fundamental consequence of diminishing public trust in local government is a loss of civic engagement. Public trust and civic engagement depend on people having access to accessible data to engage. The number of people currently using open data to find solutions to community problems is relatively small compared to the number of people who could make use of it if they had access to usable government data.
Civic engagement means residents driving social change, and in the city context, community building and local context is essential for mobilizing civic engagement. If cities care about mobilizing their communities to participate in local problem-solving, they need to be intentional about releasing the right information.
Information is power. Problems of inequality are fundamentally linked to the inequitable distribution of power. If local governments play a strong role in facilitating the open flow of information, they can empower residents to participate in the development of their own community, and pushback against the power gap.