Getting More Use From Open Data: Engaging Data Power Users

Working with cities across the US on open data initiatives, one question I hear over and over is “How can we make sure the data we release to the public is useful?” Answering this question can be a daunting task, even for governments that have experience with open data. At the heart of the question is the idea that open data needs two parties to be useful. Governments release data. But to unlock the true power of open data, others have to take that data and use it.

One way to get more use from opening data is to “release with intent” and directly engage people you think are likely to use the released data. I like to call these interested stakeholders “power users.” These users may be people who make repeated requests for information, have a vested interest in a particular subject area, or are involved in the local civic technology community. No matter who they are, engaging them BEFORE you open data can save you time and effort as you make more and more government data available to the public. By identifying areas where there are existing user groups for open data, you increase the odds that data you release will be used instead of collecting figurative dust in your open data portal.

The rest of this post will dive deeply into one strategy for increasing the use of open data: engaging power users in a specific subject area. We’ll first take a look at one example of engaging power users from Louisville, Kentucky, and then walk through some practical tips to help you do similar work in your community.

Engaging Planning and Design Services stakeholders in the River City

Louisville is known for many things: Kentucky bourbon, Louisville Cardinals athletics, and the Kentucky Derby to name a few. Louisville Metro Government also runs a leading open data program which houses several datasets that have more than 500,000 views. But there were still gaps in their practice which the city wanted to improve upon, including strategically releasing additional datasets in areas that users wanted. But what datasets would be valuable? Would users respond to this data? How could the city get the voice of its customers built into its open data?

In order to answer these questions, Louisville decided to deeply engage with its Planning and Design Services (PDS) department to identify and release data that was relevant to its power users. The city chose PDS for several reasons. First, PDS had leadership that was committed to opening more data and engaging its constituents. Second, PDS was lightly represented in the city’s existing open data catalog. Finally, PDS interacts regularly with a variety of stakeholders, including real estate developers, banks, lawyers, and property owners who have an interest in using PDS data. Internal users were also very interested in PDS data for land use decisions, giving any released dataset a built-in customer base, which was prioritized by the city.

With PDS on board, Louisville engaged GovEx to help brainstorm potential ways to engage interested stakeholders with two major goals in mind: to identify and meet customer desires for PDS data, and to build a process that could be replicated by other departments who wanted to engage their own stakeholders. To meet these goals, GovEx and Louisville designed, organized, and facilitated an in-person focus group to allow customers of PDS data to voice their opinions directly.

In the end, around 25 users of PDS data, including real estate developers, lawyers, civic hackers, and neighborhood organization representatives, attended the focus group and provided valuable feedback for Louisville’s PDS team. Discussions covered a range of topics including prioritizing the release of data to build a complete history of a property over time, determining ways to link PDS data to related information like utilities data, and developing interactive visualization tools to make it easier to find desired data points. Some of the group’s feedback validated what PDS was already doing, while other comments helped identify points for future action. Most importantly, both the department and its customers emerged excited to continue the discussion to improve access to PDS data and gained a better picture of the potential of open data in to improve government services in Louisville.

What now? Engaging power users through open data in your community

There are many lessons to take from Louisville’s experience in engaging PDS stakeholders. The four tips below (with the acronym DATA, of course) outline the main ideas that GovEx recommends to maximize your impact when engaging power users around open data.

  • Do the work up front – Almost all the hard work of engaging stakeholders around data is done before the actual conversations with the community. Identifying a subject area, developing an engagement strategy, setting goals for the engagement, and having a follow-up plan are things that should be done before an engagement begins. In Louisville, the city identified PDS as a target subject area, decided to hold a focus group with a specific set of stakeholders, and set a goal of identifying data for quick release to meet stakeholder needs. All this work helped the conversation with stakeholders go smoothly.
  • Aim for a specific department and data type – Having a narrow unifying theme can make it easier to identify users while allowing a government to focus on its strategic priorities through open data. Louisville focused on PDS data after a variety of internal conversations with leadership, took advantage of previously existing stakeholder groups to narrow down their list of stakeholders to engage, and focused on filling gaps in their existing data catalog. Louisville also prioritized internal data users, as land use officials would benefit from more consistent and open PDS data due to reduced time in researching and compiling data to answer specific questions. This setup allowed for a focused and in-depth discussion that facilitated benefits and follow-up action for everyone involved.
  • Take advantage of existing stakeholder groupsChoosing a specific subject area allows you to more easily tap into existing neighborhood groups, professional associations, and community organizations interested in that subject area. These groups are more likely to engage around in a discussion with tangible goals for a particular department they are interested in than a discussion about data in general. Louisville engaged a local GIS consortium, neighborhood organizations, and a listserve of local real estate developers to generate its list of potential stakeholders, allowing them to target specific users they knew would have an interest in PDS data.
  • Act on feedback and keep the conversation going – When you engage power users, be prepared to act on the feedback they give. Having discrete action steps and delivering on them builds trust, make the customers feel heard, and gives the department a sense of ownership and accomplishment. In Louisville, the city committed to sending email follow-ups to all attendees summarizing the focus group, to notify focus group participants when PDS data was released on the open data portal, and asked participants to help identify a time to continue the conversation in a few months. Having concrete action items for the government and specific asks for stakeholders helps to keep the momentum going once the initial engagement ends.

The bottom line: open data needs users to be successful. Deliberately engaging power users around specific data can help governments unlock the power of open data and expand its use. Following these tips will hopefully give you a good start in engaging power users of data in your community.

Do you have other ideas about getting better use from open data in cities? Let us know at govex@jhu.edu and keep the conversation going.