Cities Turn to Public Input Portals to Shape Policies for Open Data

    Jun 27, 2017

    Four cities have begun seeking public input as they define open data policies, a practice that government transparency advocates hope could one day grow into a routine part of all lawmaking practices.

    The cities – Tempe and Glendale in Arizona; Nashville; and Durham, N.C. – are doing so with guidance from a nonpartisan group called Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that facilitates the use of technology and open data to make governments more transparent and accountable. The four cities are also among those in the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities, a consortium of cities that have committed to improving their use of data to improve 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. Glendale and Nashville are using a platform called Madison. In Durham, officials are working to improve an open data policy that is already in place.

    The Sunlight Foundation is working directly with 55 cities to provide technical assistance for open data reforms.

    “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 policies that have been made in the United States at the city level that actually have gone through this kind of online collaborative process.”

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

    The inspiration comes from Washington, D.C., which in 2015 had a public collaboration process with its own open data policy. Matt Bailey, a former director of the Office of the Chief Technology Officer, said it’s wise to seek public input because the people, rather than policy makers, have the actual expertise – “especially when there are people who have been working on open data for nearly 20 years outside of city hall.”

    Such involvement often benefits both sides. When the public gets more access to 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, for instance, many in the public have sought more information about the open data portal. Stephanie Deitrick, a city official, said it is a positive sign because it helps developers “actually start talking to people about what they want and the things they’re interested in.”

    She added: “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.”

    © 2017, ARMA International