Impactful open data through user research


This blog was originally posted on the Laserfiche ECM blog.

Over the past four years, the Sunlight Foundation’s Open Cities team has helped further transparency and accountability in cities throughout the country by assisting them in developing and implementing open data policies. In that time we have seen 62 cities adopt open data policies, standardizing the establishment of open data as a best practice in how cities interact with residents and provide a direct and accessible way to public information.

Emerging research proves cities that adopt open data policies see a decrease in the number of public records requests, and cities with “robust” open data policies are more likely to see an even greater reduction in the number of requests.

This affirms one of the key benefits of adopting open data: greater efficiency in public records administration, for both residents and city staff.

As more cities adopt open data policies, our work has evolved to help cities shape open data programs to the actual needs and desires of the community for greater impact. To do so, we developed the Tactical Data Engagement (TDE) framework, a user research and community engagement process, used to not only assess the information needs of a community, but also to facilitate the co-designing of an open data based solution to those needs.

The TDE framework has been piloted in four U.S. cities: Madison, Wisconsin; Glendale, Arizona; Austin, Texas; and Norfolk, Virginia. We adapted TDE to each city’s unique environment, obtaining results which helped directly address community needs with data-based solutions.

Read on for key takeaways from our work piloting the TDE approach:

Ground-truth your efforts in community needs

To ensure use and re-use of open data, cities should publish data residents will find useful. Cities can identify this data through several means, such as by reviewing the most frequent public records requests, or by engaging directly with residents on their data needs. The closer a city gets to having an understanding of the needs of residents and stakeholders, the more its open data program can be an effective tool for them.

Be flexible

Investigations into community needs and workshopping potential open data solutions can yield a few surprises, such as finding out that residents prefer data visualizations as opposed to raw data. Be willing to adapt to better meet the needs of residents and other data users. Keeping an open mind can help cities get the most out of user engagement.

Use existing resources

One of the more powerful aspects of open data is that it allows cities to utilize information they already collect to the benefit of their local community. Additionally, cities can use pre-existing data, relationships, and research to determine community information needs, making the challenge of community engagement less daunting. Cities have a great opportunity to ensure information and data they’re sharing with residents is actually useful to them, thereby encouraging greater participation in the governance process to the benefit of all.

Beyond promoting transparency, cities should actively seek to involve the community in developing their open data programs as well as viewing them as partners to tackle problems together.

Interacting with them through user research is a great first step in building that partnership.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out our Roadmap to Informed Communities, along with other resources on our site, and feel free to reach out to us at