Cities Turn to Public Input to Shape Open Data Policy

Transparency advocates hope tech-based collaborations will become a permanent part of the lawmaking process.

In recent weeks, four cities have begun to actively solicit public input as they draft or hone open data policies — a practice that government transparency advocates hope could one day grow from the niche realm of open data into a routine part of all lawmaking practices.

And while the logistical details of each situation differ, all four — Tempe, Ariz.; Glendale, Ariz.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Durham, N.C. — are using technology to try to foster greater public input in their open data policies. They are doing so with guidance from the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization that facilitates the use of tech and open data to make government more accountable and transparent. All four are also part of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities, a national consortium of municipalities that have publicly committed to enhancing their use of data to improve governmental services, engage residents and inform local decision-making.

Tempe is collecting public feedback through a Google doc
on its open data policy and open data portal, which launched May 22. To solicit input from the public on their respective open data policies, which are not yet finalized, both Glendale and Nashville are using a platform called Madison, designed by the OpenGov Foundation specifically to host public comments on drafts of policies and legislation. In Durham, officials are working to improve and build upon an open data policy that is already in place, also by using Madison. In addition to Madison and Google docs, cities have also used GitHub to collect such feedback.

This practice, however, is far from common. Sunlight is currently working directly with 55 cities across the country to provide technical assistance for open data reforms. Of those cities, 10 have put open data policies online for public comment, and that includes the four mentioned above.

“This idea hasn’t really caught on yet,” said Stephen Larrick, Sunlight’s open cities director. “We have the technology to make the legislative process work in a fundamentally different, more collaborative way, but it hasn’t really caught on. What we’ve seen is that in this niche area of open data policy, there is a huge percentage of polices that have been made in the United States at the city level that actually have gone through this kind of online collaborative process.”

The reason open data policy lends itself to public collaboration is that citizen involvement is at the foundation of open data efforts. This means open data is an ideal area to launch a culture change.

“The hope is to start here and eventually cities will become more comfortable with drafting all policies in public space for public comment,” said Alyssa Doom, open cities project manager with Sunlight.

The inspiration for this work comes from Washington, D.C., which went through a public collaboration process with its own open data policy back in 2015. One of the reasons district officials looked to the public was the knowledge that members of their community possessed expert knowledge about data, said Matt Bailey, former director of technology and innovation in Washington, D.C., during a recent interview published by Sunlight.

Bailey said that using his partial knowledge of data to write a policy that he would then run by officials who knew much about policy but little about data was not ideal, “especially when there are people who have been working on open data for nearly 20 years outside of city hall. We also wanted to take advantage of outside expertise, beyond what was inside city government. We already had a civic hacking community who had advocated for the policy.”

Such involvement often benefits both sides. When the public gets more access to the data, the public becomes more knowledgeable, and a more knowledgeable public can bring increased knowledge back to benefit the government and the community.

In Tempe, putting open data policy online for public feedback is already fostering a culture shift, or at least it will if effective engagement continues, said Stephanie Deitrick, GIS manager with the city.

Although many members of the public have been accessing the Google doc with Tempe’s open data policy, few of them have left comments. Several individuals have, however, subsequently asked for more information about the open data portal, if not the exact specificities of the open data policy. This is good, Deitrick said, because it helps developers “actually start talking to people about what they want and the things they’re interested in.”

“We want people to actually use and look at the data. If they don’t know it’s there, if they don’t understand how to use the portal or the data’s not interesting to them, we’re going to be putting this out and the only people who are going to look at it are going to be us. I like what we’re doing, but I don’t want us to be the target audience.”

One challenge for Tempe has been figuring out how to help people understand why participation in this matters and why it’s worth their time. To foster helpful levels of involvement requires an educational component in addition to having the technology.

“You’re asking people to give their time to participate in something they may not normally do, or they may not necessarily see the value of for them as a person, as a citizen or as someone who works in Tempe,” Deitrick said. “That idea of wanting people to do this and have it be meaningful for them in a positive way, I wasn’t approaching it that way at first, trying to make sure this is a positive experience. I just assumed it would be.”

On a human level, soliciting public feedback also requires government to make themselves vulnerable, especially with initiatives or policies they’ve invested significant time in.

“Everybody is human,” said Deitrick. “Everybody is nervous about the potential of putting themselves out there. I’m hoping this helps with making it easier for myself or anyone else who feels that way to get past the anxiety and that feeling of putting something personal out there that people might nitpick at.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine