Lessons from Tactical Data Engagement in Norfolk and Austin


Our new case studies dive into our Tactical Data Engagement (TDE) work with Norfolk and Austin, as we continue to explore how open data and user-centered design can be applied to find solutions for real local issues.   

Creating a more resilient city in Norfolk, Virginia

The City of Norfolk used TDE methods to put open data in the hands of residents who are fighting for a more resilient city.

As a coastal city, Norfolk, Virginia’s residents are accustomed to defending the city against  extreme weather. Still, in recent years, flooding has become a more persistent issue, affecting local businesses, making major roads inaccessible, and disrupting residents’ lives. 

Having launched an open data program, the City of Norfolk was eager to put data to work to address flooding and resilience issues. Through What Works Cities, the City of Norfolk partnered with Sunlight’s Open Cities team to seek a community-centered open data solution to improve the city’s resiliency.

Sunlight helped the City understand who might use data related to flood resilience, and why they might need it, by developing user personas and use cases to guide the City’s open data efforts. After reviewing Sunlight’s recommendations, the City chose to focus on helping local researchers and advocates understand long-term weather trends (the chosen use case). Sunlight and the City co-hosted a roundtable to gather input on what exact data might help researchers better understand the long-term trajectory of weather patterns and effects.

Armed with the input from local experts, Norfolk made a plan to release new flood gauge data via a new API for local researchers. The City is eager to use this release as a first step to build a community of data users around flood resilience. TDE helped the City find and act on opportunities to empower local researchers to use open data for their important work toward making Norfolk more resilient.

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Tackling homelessness in Austin

The City of Austin used TDE methods to find how open data might supercharge existing efforts to reform services for people experiencing homeless.

Homelessness is a persistent and challenging issue in the city of Austin, Texas. In fact, more people are now experiencing homelessness in Austin than at any point in the last eight years. In a fairly spread out City where services are concentrated downtown, people seeking support face the burden of navigating a dispersed and often confusing social service ecosystem.

The City of Austin partnered with Sunlight’s Open Cities team to try to find how open data might help the City’s service reform efforts and newly empower and engage those experiencing homelessness in decision-making processes.  Backed by teams that are experienced in open data and human-centered design, the City came to the work already equipped with tools to address these issues. Sunlight reviewed existing user personas that the City had developed to understand clients of the City’s social services around homelessness (who were not necessarily data users)and formed a more targeted set of personas to describe potential users of open data.

In looking at potential open data users, Austin chose to focus on supporting the City’s contracted social service providers with data governance and open data improvements. The City convened a targeted working group to co-design potential solutions to lack of open contract data on social services, seeking to gauge what the group felt the City should provide better access to information to improve the efficacy of social services for homeless individuals. The group agreed that more data on contracts must be collected before it could be published to help provide a fuller picture of the state of homelessness in Austin and the services in place to address it. As a result, the Downtown Austin Community Court will publish new summary-level data on homelessness that might help the community have a better view of the prevalence of homelessness and the reach of DACC’s services, and has launched a new effort to open up contracting processes around social services. 

Austin’s work to open up decision-making processes about the governance and delivery of social service is a critical step to change the city culture around homelessness. Because they are opening their doors to first generate and then publish more meaningful open data and information, the City’s new processes will pave the way for a stronger stronger civic dialogue to inform how the City addresses homelessness.

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