Thinking outside the box on data users – engaging non-technical audiences in open data work


Sunlight’s Open Cities team helps cities develop open data policies and effectively engage communities with open data through our flagship Tactical Data Engagement (TDE) method, but, inevitably, most engagement methods for open data attract data users with experience reading or using data on their own.

What about those residents without experience using open data? Every person has experience to inform open data where they live; they know which stores are well-stocked in their neighborhood and which ones aren’t, the best routes to take to work to avoid traffic, and which playgrounds are safe for their kids or aren’t. 

Talking to people about experiences of life in their community can add necessary context to open data, especially when decision-makers plan to use open data to inform crucial policy choices. 

Today we’re launching a playbook on conducting Community Data Dialogues. These Dialogues are in-person events where organizers can share open data with community members in the most digestible way possible to start a conversation about specific local issues. 

The main goal of these events is to give residents who may not have technical expertise but do have local experience a chance to participate in data-informed decision making. Doing this work in-person can open doors and let facilitators ask a broader range of questions. To facilitate constructive conversations, the event must be designed to be inclusive of people without a background in data analysis and/or using statistics to understand local issues. Carrying out this event will let decision-makers in government use open data to talk with residents who can add to data’s value with their stories of lived experience relevant to local issues.

In order to learn more about creating data-themed events for those lacking experience in using and analyzing data, we sat down with April Urban, co-founder of Data Days Cleveland, an annual event designed to make data accessible to all.

SL: What inspired you [and the other co-leads] to form this event? How has Data Days evolved since its inception?

AU: Data Days CLE came together through some amazing synergy between a couple groups. The Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development had a small grant, as well as some technical assistance, from the Living Cities Civic Tech Collaborative. Together, we wanted to explore a holistic approach to the civic tech ecosystem. We wondered how we could help raise awareness of the potential for data and technology to be a helpful tool in solving civic problems in a way that hadn’t been done before. 

At the same time, other partners around the country were also all hosting events similar to Data Days, but we wanted to do something on a larger scale. The first Data Days CLE happened in March of 2017. We had some amazing partners that made it a huge success, even on our insane timeline. [At the time] Microsoft had a cities team out in Chicago, and came to give a basic training on Microsoft Excel, which everyone found super useful. Digital C [which was still One Community at the time] invited the first CTO of the United States, Aneesh Chopra,  for a keynote address and a special group meeting with key city leaders. That was truly amazing. We also held a third event on a Saturday aimed at the average citizen, and did it all unconference style to make it as accessible as possible.

The second year, 2018, we engaged a planning committee to get a broader set of folks in civic tech to all build the agenda, and we hosted Cleveland’s first ever Civic Tech Pitch Competition. This past year, in 2019, we put out a Request for Presentations for the first time, so that our agenda could be very community responsive. We were thrilled that we got so many submissions, we actually had to turn some away.

Each year, we’ve learned a lot about the audience for Data Days and have refined our approach to it. We’ve found our sweet spot is really with the professional staff level of people in the nonprofit and local government sectors. But we also engage lots of everyday citizens, especially those interested in advocacy, students, and professionals and leaders from other industries. Our aim is to get people more interested in making data available and accessible, and in building people’s capacity to use data and think about civic tech.

SL: Why is it important to make data accessible to people who have never used it before?

AU: People often think sharing their experiences aren’t a valid way to describe a problem — and that’s really not true. There are definitely times when describing a problem quantitatively, through data, helps people better understand it. But we think it’s important to make data available to people so we can understand and describe the world around us in multiple ways, especially as it relates to social problems. 

We also recognize that data and information is so critical in making our civic sector run effectively, so we want to build connections between folks across the civic spectrum. From the GIS guy who works at the regional sewer district to the office of community development at the city, we want to connect people. When you get them in the same space, and get them talking about their roles, and their problems, solutions start to spark. And then we want to connect them to the woman taking GIS classes at the local community college, or the urban planning and social work students at the local university who have a flair for data and an interest in taking on that kind of role in their career. Bringing people together can have a transformative effect when it comes to solving problems.

SL: How can the public use open data to engage governments?

AU: We’re finding open data brings a lot of value to the public sector in helping to make data available across government silos, and that’s been an incredibly important way we’ve been able to get people to connect to this idea. And then sharing it even beyond that sector, it becomes even more powerful. At the Poverty Center, we operate different integrated data systems, where we link together disparate data sets from governments and nonprofits, and then are able to study very important social problems using the data. That leads to better policies and programming. 

The public and especially our local media have done a good job in raising awareness of local issues, problems that have long gone unnoticed because they’re faced by the most vulnerable and voiceless populations. Often times, they do this using open data. It’s a long road to finding the right solution, but telling the story and raising the issue is an important first step, and using data will always be helpful in that effort.

SL: What are your hopes for future iterations of Data Days CLE?

AU: This year, we hope to reach out more to the IT directors and data analyst type people in the civic space and create more opportunities for them to come together, network, and discuss issues impacting their work. We’ll be looking for people to host sessions on creating complicated data use agreements, ethical data uses, and other topics that will be particularly relevant for this audience. We also hope to integrate more skills training opportunities in connection with the events — longer workshops with trainers that will help people get hands on with data sets and tools.

SL: How would you advise others looking to put on a similar event?

AU: Every community is different, so the focus and purpose of a similar event, I think, can be easily tweaked for those looking to plan an event in their community. It’s no secret that Cleveland does not have a robust open data community. This event helps get everyone together in the same space, and it gets folks talking, networking, and working together. 

On the logistics side, I highly recommend working with a planning committee, a group of people who get what you’re trying to do, but also bring different perspectives to the table. I also recommend issuing a Request for Presentations to the community, you never know who might be interested in presenting and who, outside of your own network, has something to bring to the table. And I think every year we put diversity at the forefront, actively working to champion diversity from all angles; racial and ethnic, gender, and, of course, being sure to pull in people from a diversity of professional sectors.

Have you held similar events to engage less technically savvy community members in your data project? Let us know at