Strategic Storytelling with Open Data

Without context, data is just data to most people. Numbers on a screen and lines on a chart.

Sure, there are people who look at a metadata description and see an opportunity for analysis: the data analysts and data scientists out there, the researchers, the civic hacktivists, the open data and performance management experts. But for most residents of cities across the country, a dataset on an open data portal is something that’s hard to relate to.

At GovEx, we spend a lot of our time thinking about how to connect residents to open data, from community engagement events like hackathons and open data days, to crowdsourcing open data policies for public comment, to prioritizing data for release. Today, I’d like to focus a bit on what cities do with the data they release, and an idea called strategic storytelling.

I don’t think the average city resident knows what to make of open data. Nor, perhaps, should they. They have other stuff on their minds and digging into lines of budget data, crime data, or transportation data probably isn’t their passion. When they do take interest in open data, they care about how it plays into the intersection between government services and their lives. Further, a resident may only endeavor to find information in response to a specific event. Maybe it’s a shooting in a city and a resident wants to check into crime statistics in his neighborhood. Or maybe there’s a new light rail that is being designed to connect to a resident’s neighborhood to an area with a lot of jobs, but she also cares about education funding for her local school district, so she wants to compare the magnitude of funding for transportation to education.  Open data can unpack answers to these challenges, but not on its own.

When it comes to open data, we should be focusing a bit more on strategic priorities rather than just putting data up on a portal. Strategic priorities are specified as part of a campaign platform for the senior executive and they are the key focus of legislation and policies. They drive elections, policy, and management decisions. In short, strategic priorities impact the lives of residents directly.

Cities are missing a huge opportunity to use data to tell stories about things residents care about. Storytelling predates the internet, it predates data, and even books. It’s something that speaks to us on a very basic, powerful level. Open data is really important on its own – it improves transparency, holds cities accountable, and provides a raw view into how a city operates – but open data is most impactful and accessible when it is used to support storytelling around a strategic priority.

Some cities are already using strategic storytelling to make data more useful and accessible to their residents. The beta site for San Francisco Housing Hub is a great example of this approach. Housing is a core challenge for the City of San Francisco – from creating more housing stock for a growing population, to finding shelter for the homeless, to maintaining affordability of the existing stock. When San Francisco endeavored to release housing data, it didn’t just dump a collection of datasets on its open data portal and move on. Instead, it created a hub that directs visitors to a Housing Overview that provides context on the housing challenge. With data on the city’s population, housing stock and occupancy, renter-owner breakdown, and affordability, the Housing Hub starts to tell the story of the housing challenge in San Francisco, breaking it down into the elements that residents care about and providing some context.

Similarly, when Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational use statewide, Denver started tracking data on crime, licensing, public health impacts, and other indicators to monitor the impact of the policy decision in their community. As legalization is uncharted territory, both residents and city executives alike are paying close attention to how this policy change will affect Denver. For example, legalization has the opportunity to raise significant revenue for the city, but city officials and residents want to make sure that it doesn’t increase crime or negatively impact public health. Yes, Denver is updating the data in its open data portal regularly, but it’s also beginning to tell the story behind marijuana legalization using data on a separate site devoted to this priority issue.

The San Francisco and Denver examples are great because they take the spotlight off the data itself and put it back on what matters to residents: progress on priorities in the city. While the typical resident in a city may not care about APIs, shapefiles, and metadata, they do care about citywide priorities and legislation – be it affordable housing, legalization of marijuana for recreational use, crime, budget allocation for a proposed project, or water quality. And by connecting open data to strategic priorities, open data can become more mainstream, accessible, and impactful.

Residents go to the ballot to vote on how a city’s priorities and policies affect them. Shouldn’t open data help tell the story of progress on those priorities as well?