How to open up the data in your community to help solve problems

Above from left to right: Alberto Ibargüen, Karen Freeman-Wilson, Dan X. O’Neil and Waldo Jaquith. Photo credit: Knight Foundation on Flickr.

Not all governments are eager to share the raw datasets that can reveal areas of need or problems that foundations can help solve. This challenge — making available public data in a clear, understandable way — has been central to the work of Dan X. O’Neil, head of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, and Waldo Jaquith, who heads the new US Open Data Institute. They and Karen Freeman-Wilson, the mayor of Gary, Ind., closed out the 2014 Media Learning Seminar with some guidance for community foundations to help in the effort:


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Take advantage of your unique position as a community foundation

There’s been a lot of talk about partnerships during this year’s Media Learning Seminar, and governments shouldn’t be left out of the conversation, the panelists said. “You all are in a great position in your communities to act as connectors to government,” Jaquith said. “You can be a friendly partner with them to say, ‘Hey, we are wasting a lot of money on producing reports based on data you produce but are not releasing. Why are so many people being admitted into the ER, for example. Say to them, ‘Stop giving us reports, give us the raw data.’”

Convene in the open

For O’Neill, holding meetups was key to understanding the needs and interests of the open data community in Chicago. Closely listening to the people of the community can lead to not only answers for hard-to-get data, but how to harness the data in ways that become useful to people’s lives.

Start small

Even before you try to change policy, a great way to start on this path is to have one-on-one interactions with governments to show how data sets can be useful to communities. Whether it’s information on dog licenses or restaurant inspections, you can ask for something simple. From there, you’re in a position to show what you are able to do with it. That could motivate the governments to be more open to further engagement. “It seems to always work because it’s based on real world problems,” said O’Neil. It really can be effective: Jaquith said federal data sets were released in the same incremental way until the executive order mandating open data went into effect in May.

Make a convincing case

Public officials are inherently risk-averse, said Freeman-Wilson, since they don’t want to lose their jobs. So tell them why releasing the data matters. Show examples of how public data has transformed other places or solved unique problems in communities. A good case, starting with a simple ask, or even bringing cookies, as Jaquith does, can help start a great relationship for more data down the line.

Have the humility and tolerance to learn from failure

You can’t know what works well without testing things out. Negotiating for public data and putting it to use to improve people’s lives is difficult work. ”You can’t do really difficult things without trying to do difficult things,” O’Neil said. So if you want to fail fast, you have to create situations and instruments to know whether you are failing. If something doesn’t work, change your community’s culture to be more tolerant of projects not being homeruns on the first try. Otherwise, people remain risk-averse because the penalties for failure are too big.

Be truly community-driven 

Put people first, said Freeman-Wilson. And ask the community what data they are most interested in seeing. Is it crime stats? Food truck permits? “The reason we want the information about education, public health, about crime, about homelessness is because we want to help you meet the needs of the people,” she said. “How can you turn that down? How can you not embrace that opportunity?”

Elise Hu is a journalist at NPR and a consultant for Knight Foundation.

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