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Mayors’ POV: How Does Open Data Impact Local Government?

From communicating with residents to building lines of communication with county and state entities, four mayors discussed their experience with using open data in local government during a virtual event last Friday.

a city skyline with digital data
Does open data impact local government? And if so, how? These questions were addressed by several mayors of Southern cities during an online roundtable last Friday. 

Hosted by What Works Cities, “Open Data Day 2021: Southern Cities” introduced a number of topics, ranging from strategies to increase community engagement to how data can be used to communicate with state and county governments.

One of the roundtable's first discussions revolved around using open data to share information about COVID-19 with residents. Sharon Weston Broome, mayor of Baton Rouge, La., detailed her office’s approach during the pandemic, indicating that her city realized early on that data sharing would play a key role in informing citizens.

Broome's team utilized the social networking service Nextdoor to provide information to citizens about available health-care resources such as hospital beds and ventilators. The benefit of using this tool, Broome said, is it provides real-time information on programs, services and issues that impact citizens’ daily lives.

Another perspective on communicating with residents was shared by Chattanooga, Tenn., Mayor Andy Berke, who emphasized the importance of “getting information to the right people.”

“We need to use data to highlight the underserved and unserved,” Berke said. 

One way Chattanooga achieved this, Berke said, was that it used open data to determine which areas in the city had lower numbers of residents receiving vaccines or COVID tests. 

The topic of using open data to communicate with surrounding state and county governments was also discussed by the panelists.

“We [the city of Memphis and Shelby County] created a joint task force to respond to COVID-19,” said Jim Strickland, mayor of Memphis, Tenn. “Through that process, it has been a constant sharing of data and working together.” 

Strickland said the mission of the task force is to continually assess and anticipate the needs of residents of Memphis and Shelby County and to tend to those needs as efficiently as possible.  

Frank Scott Jr., mayor of Little Rock, Ark., said his municipality is "a bit unique in the sense that the capital city of Arkansas is seated where government power is located.” Thanks to this context, Little Rock has been able to develop strong relationships both locally and at the state level to facilitate data and information sharing. 

Not all cities have had the same positive experience. 

“It’s a challenge,” Berke said. “The feds have one point of view, while the state, county and city have a different point of view.’

As a result, he said, pulling all of the pieces together has made it a bit difficult to share data. 

As for Baton Rouge’s experience, Broome said the pandemic has opened up communication between city, county and state entities.

“We have a track record of working and communicating across government lines due to the pandemic,” she said. “It requires a team effort to solve problems like these.”

Closing out the discussion, each mayor expressed the importance of using open data to build trust among residents in their communities, highlighting key factors such as transparency and accountability.

“The great thing about data is that it’s truthful; it shows warts and all,” Strickland said. “It builds faith in government within a city."


Katya Diaz is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in global strategic communications from Florida International University.