What makes a good open data use case?

by and

Cities have made great strides in publishing foundational open data, and are constantly working to release more and better data. But many city officials still wonder: what will this data do for the community? Who is actually using it?

Understanding how data will be applied in the public domain is a key element of planning and allocating the limited resources dedicated to open data programs. Ground-truthing data in its potential use cases can ensure that when data is opened, it is for a purpose.  

Planning with use cases can ensure that open data will be used to productive and potentially impactful ends.  

Data providers can create use cases by using any research methods to better understand who in the community is looking for data, what specific data they are looking for, and why they are looking for the data. Whether data providers are using survey tools, focus groups, one-on-one interviews, or community meetings to understand potential data users’ needs, they should aim to capture specific details in each of these three areas.

So what does a use case for open data look like?

Comprehensive use cases describe how a specific person or persons will use open data or public information to solve a specific problem. They can help data providers to visualize the potential of open data for problem-solving, without asking how exactly those problems will be solved.

Here is a sample use case that a data owner might assemble in planning for the launch of a new transit data portal:

  • Civic technologists need machine-readable, real-time timetables from the Department of Transportation to build tools for residents planning day-of transportation routes using public transit.

This case does not describe solutions to the problems community members care about. A use case that incorrectly centers solutions would read as:

  • Civic technologists and residents need real-time transit apps to plan transportation routes using public transit.

In this case, data providers may run the risk of preemptively addressing community needs with the wrong solution. Once data providers have created problem-centered use cases, they should take any opportunity they can to talk with target data users to ask how they might support their use case for open data.  

Choosing how to support a use case can be difficult and requires intentional co-creation with community members. Sometimes, data providers have limited tools at their disposal to address communities’ needs. Still, there may be tactical opportunities to adapt or re-format existing data so that it meets the actual needs of the identified potential data users.

By identifying use cases in the planning phase of any open data efforts, data providers also have an opportunity to think critically about who their open data is supporting and what realistic impact it will have on the community.

In some cases, data providers doing a brief review of community needs might only see that current data users like researchers, technologists, entrepreneurs, or already-active community residents seem to be demanding the most information. But for those cities working to fight poverty, support equity, and improve the quality of life for all residents, segmenting current users of open data and noticing who is not at the table is an opportunity to further investigate the needs of underrepresented communities.

Taking a resident-centered approach to building an open data program, starting with strong use cases behind each open data effort, can help cities to plan better for their current data users and take on the harder task of identifying, upskilling, or engaging the potential data users out there.

Learn more about planning with use cases in the Roadmap to Informed Communities.