This report is part of the event report series on International Open Data Day 2019. On Saturday 2nd March, groups from around the world organised over 300 events to celebrate, promote and spread the use of open data. Code for Columbus and Open Data Delaware received funding through the mini-grant scheme by Mapbox to organise events under the Open Mapping theme. This is a joint report by Ryan Harrington & Brittany Vance: their biographies are included at the bottom of this post.
Open Data Day presents an amazing opportunity for people around the world to celebrate civic technology and the benefits that it can have for our communities. At Code for Columbus and Open Data Delaware we each used the opportunity to build solutions to problems that would make a difference for our local communities. Throughout the process of hosting an Open Data Day event, we walked away with 5 lessons that we could apply more broadly to solving civic technology challenges.
Data cleanup should not be underestimated
On Open Data Day, we found truth in the old computer science joke: “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are different.” In theory, open data should give us insights. In practice, it is not simply enough for data to be open. Data provided directly from city workers may be in a format that made the most sense to them in the context of their jobs. This data, while useful in that context, may not be in a format that is useful to developers and data scientists who want to implement projects that may be wildly different.
A great example of this comes from some of the work that we did in Delaware. One of our long-term projects is focused on making Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) data more accessible to anyone looking for it. A first step in that process was to issue FOIA requests for all of Delaware’s FOIA logs from as many state agencies and divisions as we could. Our end goal is to determine which datasets people ask for most frequently through FOIA requests and then make them public as part of a data repository.
In Delaware, every agency is required to maintain a FOIA log, but there are no regulations regarding how those logs should be maintained. Each agency’s logs are built in a way that makes them most useful to that agency on a day-to-day basis. To say the least, this made it so that no two FOIA logs were alike – some came as Excel files, others came as text, and a few came as PDFs of scanned Excel print outs. Beyond that, each came with differently labeled columns, different data types, and different ways of tracking each request. To make any headway on this project, data cleaning had to be at the forefront of our minds. On Open Data Day, another truth came to fruition – for any data project, at least 80% of the work will be data cleaning and only 20% will be all of the exciting parts.
Engaging community stakeholders improves results
In Columbus, we used the experience to show our civic partners where data cleanup efforts were needed, while being sensitive to staffing limitations. By highlighting possible benefits to the community and our civic partners, and public interest in the work being done for the community, we were able to show that the additional effort would be a worthwhile investment. As a result, we are still moving forward with our Open Data Day projects several weeks later, and our civic partners are helping us find additional data sources, while they discuss data cleanup internally.
We have had the most success by honoring the perspectives of everyone, including those at the top. While we are using open data to encourage that our local government is working for everyone, we have made a conscious attempt to be mindful that people in public service genuinely want to do a good job. By highlighting Open Data Day as a platform to showcase local government’s willingness to listen, improve, and serve, we have been able to build relationships with stakeholders who can potentially influence future projects. We were also able to open a public dialog about funding for high-profile projects in the city.
Civic tech communities thrive when they are built from diverse people
A large city with millions of people has at least as many millions of perspectives on its daily life. It is simply not possible to have an in-depth understanding of so many perspectives without consulting the lived experiences of real people. In meetings leading up to Open Data Day in Columbus, we invited cross-sectional participation from multiple economic and social classes. We found that people from financially secure areas of the city were not aware that people in other areas of the city regularly went without food. We also found, conversely, that people from struggling areas were not aware of the genuine desire of those in power to help, and that some programs were not as efficient as possible simply due to lack of exposure to the experiences of struggling communities.
Diverse perspectives are not just important when identifying challenges to solve. Just as important is to ensure that participants in your civic tech community have diverse experiences. This can come from a variety of places – life experience, socioeconomic status, or tech background to name a few. This diversity helps to ensure that the solutions that our communities solve are thoughtfully and reflectively built.
Awareness of the possibilities of open data is needed
Open data that is not used is simply another burden for cash-strapped governments to carry. Highlighting the potential usefulness of open data transforms a burden into an asset. In Columbus, we have presented city leaders with scenarios where publicly available data can show insights into areas of higher mortality and lack of access to nutritious food.
Education about open data must move beyond city leaders, though. The benefits of open data exponentially increase as citizens understand its value and gain the ability to make use of it. Open Data Day provides a platform to invite citizens to learn and engage with open data projects, while also giving them the opportunity to provide their own perspectives. Improving awareness about open data and civic technology empowers communities to make better decisions for themselves and better advocate for their needs.
It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon
While this is a problem we cannot solve overnight, we were able to use Open Data Day to continue the conversation as to how issues of access to food, transit, and healthcare play out in the lives of real people. In Columbus, we are highlighting how to use open data and volunteer efforts from the tech community to gain insight into those problems. We will need to continue the conversation over the coming weeks, months, and possibly years, to ensure that the stories of the underrepresented are heard.
This same lesson is true in Delaware, as we focus on building solutions to improve transparency in our community. The excitement that comes from sprinting through a day of problem solving, such as what we see on Open Data Day, should be used as a catalyst for the marathon of the rest of the year. Open Data Day serves as an opportunity to bring new momentum to the projects and ideas that civic technology communities aim to solve on a day-to-day basis.
Ryan Harrington is a data science professional focused on making his community a better place. He co-founded and co-organizes Open Data Delaware, where he advocates for government transparency and the use of civic technology. Day-to-day, he works as a lead data scientist for CompassRed Data Labs in Wilmington, DE where he is part of a team that builds predictive models to help businesses and organizations meet their goals.
Brittany Vance is a software engineer, mentor, and community organizer. She founded Code for Columbus, a Code for America brigade in Columbus, Ohio. Code for America is an organization that uses the civic technology to improve how government serves the American public. Code for Columbus works toward this goal by leveraging open data and training citizens in its use.