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Data / Municipal government / Technology

5 on-ramps to the world of open data

During a Slack AMA alongside our sister site Generocity, we asked organizers and civic technologists how to connect non-technologists with open data. Here's what they told us.

Philadelphia City Hall. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)’s Editorial Calendar explores a different topic each month. The November 2018 topic is Open Data. These stories highlight civic tech efforts across’s five markets.

Open data’s promises of transparency, efficiency and accountability can quickly fizzle if the information can’t get past those who can code.

In other words, it will take a diverse group of engaged citizens — from civic technologists and reporters to community organizers and your average citizen — to help open data fulfill its maximum potential.

During a public Slack AMA — a brisk, digital town hall of sorts — organized alongside our sister site Generocity last week, we asked City of Philadelphia officials, Code for Philly organizers and civic technologists how to help expand access to (and engagement with) Philadelphia’s open data sets. Here are the bridges they laid out.

Open data, IRL

“I think in-person trainings are really helpful for getting non-technologists involved,” said Kistine Carolan, data services manager for the City of Philadelphia. “A friendly face goes a long way in reducing tech intimidation. As much as possible, plain language explanations of what open data it is, and giving concrete examples of how people use it makes it easier to understand it.”

It also helps to, you know, ask the audience what they want to learn.

“In trainings, we also try to tailor and prioritize what apps/data we highlight to what might be of most interest to an audience,” Carolan said. “I often ask at the beginning why they joined the training, what they’re interested in, and navigate to poignant data examples.”

Show the impact

These discussions are hard to have in abstracts. Chief Information Officer Mark Wheeler said the City has found success in showing engaged citizens specific ways that open data has helped increase efficiency in local government.

“The presentations that [the Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation] and the [Office of Information Technology]’s CityGeo teams have done for the Citizens Planning Institute, the Mayor’s Office for Volunteer Services training days for community leaders, and the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations conference have all been very successful in demonstrating how open data is used fully in apps like Atlas and how to use Open Data in tools like Google Sheets to answer a question about vacancy or property ownership by an LLC,” he said.

This stuff takes time

Blocking off time to take on specific open data projects can help, said Code for Philly co-captain Toni McIntyre.

“I’ve found that people are generally interested in using open data but either don’t set aside time to explore it or forget exactly how much is available for them to use,” McIntyre said. “Our National Day of Civic Hacking was all open data focused this year. And [the] Open Data team at the City really helped with that. I think a lot of people enjoyed that event because it gave them dedicated time to dive into the data.”

(Code for Philly has found success in month-long hackathon formats that allow for deeper work into civic tech projects.)

What’s the lede?

Though he’s not a reporter, developer Jess Mason — cofounder of open data project Cypher Philly — suggests finding the news hook that gets people engaged.

“What’s worked for us in the past is giving non-technologists a topic that is already of interest to them or a buzz in the news,” Mason said. “This provides a focal point, something for them to rally around and that will inspire them to take action and learn more. Examples could range from PA gerrymandering, complaints against police, 311 reports, gun violence, etc.”

Impact without implementation

But is delving into open data the only way to become engaged?  Textizen cofounder Michelle Lee shared one example of how open data can help citizens even if they’re not directly involved in analyzing it.

“LOTS of non-technologists can benefit from open data without interacting with it directly,” said Lee. “Here’s an example.”

Want to read the full conversation? Join the Slack here and scroll through the #ama channel.

Companies: City of Philadelphia

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