Government Transparency is Key to Valuable Community Partnerships

by Aug 23, 2018Governance, Technology

Katya Abazajian

Katya Abazajian is the director of Sunlight’s Open Cities team. In this role, she directs the team's work sharing best practices on open data policy and practice across the What Works Cities network.

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Cities are at the forefront of innovative new solutions to long-time issues like access to housing, transportation, or education. Innovation is a group effort, though, and requires collaboration. To solve problems in cities, governments need to act not only as service providers for essential city functions, but also as conveners who facilitate new partnerships and relationships among their civic tech and open data ecosystems. Cities need support from community organizations, residents, researchers, and advocates to use data and technology to create better outcomes for their constituents.

Data collected by cities and other governments is a big part of this new frontier of innovation. Cities collect data on everything from budgets to potholes to traffic collisions, and when cities make that information available online, it becomes open data. Open data gives residents a chance to participate in problem-solving around issues that can shape the course of city innovation.

The Sunlight Foundation’s Open Cities team works to make open data as easily available as possible, to encourage more meaningful civic participation and transparency in government. We investigate how open data can inspire community action around issues that matter to residents — whether they’re worried about monitoring local government corruption or just want to learn more about where they should send their kids to school. Not only are cities’ transparency efforts, like open data, important for building public trust and good government; they can also encourage more sharing, openness, and creativity between governments and members of their communities. Cities that share open data intentionally and proactively with their residents become more communicative, more accessible, and more engaged in their communities.


Transparency as a tool for collaboration

In the early days of open data, cities and transparency advocates hoped that simply publishing open data would break down barriers and inspire residents to use data in ways that would revolutionize urban life. Releasing data would be both an exercise in building public trust and in inspiring local community action. But, as a partner of the What Works Cities initiative working with over 60 cities around the country, we’ve seen that just publishing data hasn’t been enough to fulfill that promise, and inspire the kinds of changes that would drive real innovation.

While cities around the country have built strong foundations for open data by passing policy and releasing datasets online, they have struggled to achieve the real impact that open data might provide. Today, there are still barriers to collaboration: residents and technologists alike still have trouble finding, using, or acting on published open data. Cities still have work to do to improve what they release to collaborators in the community, and how they release it. And not only does the quality of most open data need to improve, but cities also need to proactively find ways to engage hard-to-reach populations and disenfranchised residents if they want a real shot at solving their most pressing social issues.

Last year, we began looking for examples of community use of open data to study cities that had been successful in collaborating with residents around open data to address local issues. We drafted a guide to Tactical Data Engagement for city governments in an effort to show that transparency, if applied correctly, can inspire community-driven action and problem-solving. We found that people interested in open data are not just technologists or civic hackers — they can also be staff at small nonprofits, journalists for the local paper, small business entrepreneurs, or local volunteers. Our guide is based on the fundamental idea that residents are experts in their own lives, and that public data and information may help provide the tools that diverse groups of residents need to inform real change in their communities.

We still believe that transparency and open data are at the center of collaboration for progress in cities, but cities need to be intentional about how they release open data with partners. Not only that, but partners and local data intermediaries need to step up and advocate for equitable, accessible, free open data so that residents can use it to meaningfully participate in the new tech and data-driven age of city innovation.


How You Can Help

Powerful advocacy for open government starts with finding residents’ needs and bringing them to the forefront of cities’ open government efforts. Often, once city officials can see exactly who needs information to solve a local problem, and why they need it, they begin to see open data as necessary and meaningful.

Advocates outside of city hall need to do real work to understand the experiences of those living in neighborhoods and cities and to bring their needs and experiences to city hall. Transparency and accountability are not only pie-in-the-sky ideals in building better, more democratic governments, they are also tools for improving civic participation and community well-being. We designed Tactical Data Engagement for cities to see the clear pathway between sharing data and information and making a difference in local issues.

We hope that civically engaged organizations across industries will see that meaningful and effective civic participation is the true promise of transparency and accountability. And that with better, more open collaboration between communities and their governing institutions, we will be able to bring about smarter, more innovative cities.


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1 Comment

  1. Great article and a very interesting topic! ntropy data, Inc. recently worked with the City of Sydney to enable citizens to share anonymized data to support decision making around late night trading rules:

    There was great feedback from both sides and it really showed the power of using data in an open and transparent way.


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