Connecting state and local government leaders

When It Comes to Open Data, ‘Make Sure That It Is Meeting a Need of the User’

Louisville, Kentucky

Louisville, Kentucky David Goldman / AP Photo


Connecting state and local government leaders

Experts in Washington, D.C. for Smart Cities Week discussed ways to help achieve this goal.

WASHINGTON — As state and local governments move to publish more data online, determining how and why people will use the information is an important consideration, one that a panel of practitioners offered some insight into during an event here Wednesday.

One approach to this aspect of making government data publicly available is to begin with a “user story.” This involves taking into account who the data is meant to serve, how these people intend to use the information and what they hope to achieve as a result.

So for instance, a city resident might want to know the types of crimes happening in their neighborhood in order to take precautions to make themselves safer.

By neglecting to walk through a user story, or some similar process, a government agency runs the risk of wasting time and money posting “open data” that sits untouched and produces a poor return on investment, or ROI.

“If we’re building a data tool, or a data platform, you want to make sure that it is meeting a need of the user,” said Justin Erlich, a special assistant attorney general in the California Attorney General’s Office. Erlich has helped spearhead Open Justice, a California initiative focused on publishing criminal justice data online.

He spoke during a Wednesday panel discussion held as part of Smart Cities Week, titled “The ROI of Opening Public Safety Data.”

For the Metro Police Department in Louisville, Kentucky, one data user story dealt with department demographics.

According to Assistant Chief of Police Robert Schroeder, the department strives to maintain good relationships with local pastors in Louisville.

“They do a lot of the community outreach,” he said during Wednesday’s panel discussion.

One frequent question that arises, he said, is: How does the composition of the officers working for the department compare to the composition of the communities they police? The department wanted to give the local pastors, and others, an easy way to access facts and figures that offered some answers.

A dataset they published shows gender, ethnicity, age, hiring dates, assignments, educational attainment, and job titles for 1,523 members of the department.

Schroeder noted that about 23 percent of Louisville’s population consists of minority residents. Whereas the same is true for only about 10 percent of the police force.

“Obviously we’re not where we need to be, but having that data out there allows us to have an honest conversation,” he said. “It also allows the pastors when they’re going out in the community to say, ‘hey, look, this is where Louisville’s been, this is where they’re going.’”

Considering the potential users of government data helps not only when weighing what information to publish but also when deciding how it will be presented and structured.

California’s Open Justice website has a section called “Data Stories” that packages data available on the site into a narrative format based on commonly asked questions.

Scroll down the page for the “Crime Rates” data story, and you’ll see questions like “How have crime rates changed over time?” accompanied by explanatory text and charts.

Crime incident data for Atlanta provides another example of how information can be presented with users in mind.

Rather than offering crime incident data broken down only by patrol zones or police beats, the Atlanta Police Department’s open data website also provides a tool to search incidents by neighborhood, a category that is likely more familiar to most city residents.

Lt. Peter Ries, who works in the department’s crime analysis unit, pointed out during the panel event that when people attend community meetings, “if they’re knowledgeable and they already have the data in any form that they want, it makes for a better discussion.”

Bill Lucia is a Reporter at Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington D.C.

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