Selling cash strapped City Managers on open data

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This topic contains 6 replies, has 6 voices, and was last updated by  Daniel Bevarly 8 years, 7 months ago.

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  • #100487

    Jaimey Walking Bear

    Hey all,

    Have been trying for a bit now to get our City Manager here in my town of Petaluma to make the move to machine readable city data. Our city IT Manager gets it is totally on board, but has virtually no available staff hours to do anything about – nor does he have a City Manager who sees it as a high priority.

    Understood that our city, like many, has budget challenges and there are only so many staff hours to go around. But he seems to constantly be coming from a place of scarcity and is hard to sway on the up side of opening the data.

    Looking for examples and arguments out there to compel City leadership of a mid-sized city (approx. 60,000 people) to go for it and make the switch to making city data available in a form that we can actually do something with it.


  • #100499

    Daniel Bevarly

    Hi Jaimey.
    You have a challenge on your hands for a couple of reasons. The first is the economic straits your government and most municipal governments are dealing with and the fact that money has not been allocated for this service.

    The second is that you have identified a service that you believe will be beneficial to your citizens, instead of your citizens coming to you asking for this service. Therefore the cost to benefit isn’t only going to be questioned by administrators, but also potentially by citizens who may not understand the use or need for it.

    The first obvious question to ask yourself (and you have probably already done so) is “why is this service important to provide?” This question can be further examined by determining what specific data you want to offer citizens. Data can be diverse. Some of it is easy to obtain, while other data will require more time for retrieval and analysis meaning higher cost.

    Can you prioritize the data to determine which is most important? That way, you may be able to determine what resources will be needed to provide it. You probably have already gone through this exercise and determined the answer after asking yourself what segments of the public are most likely to benefit from the data? Again, is there a favorable cost-to-benefit ratio to retrieve and provide certain data sets? If so, now ask yourself the biggest question: “Can we get somebody else to pay (us) to provide the information?”

    Look to the business community. If it’s data of economic significance, then the chamber or real estate communities may find value and believe it is worth acquiring or gaining access to it.

    Theoretically, you may have identified data that you believe is important to citizens, but have not found a way to fund it and then have another, lower priority data set, but have an external source of funds to provide it. That should not be a hard decision to make at this time. Providing the lower priority data may provide a pilot for the public and for government that there is benefit in open data and gain internal and external support to get funding in next year’s budget or by developing a user fee arrangement. Good luck.

  • #100497

    Ryan Wold

    Sounds like a common challenge.

    I’ve also experienced this. So, I’ve been focusing more on the making the case for ‘lowering the bar’ in terms of moving public agencies toward transparency. Public officials do have legitimate concerns regarding data accuracy and privacy issues, the value of transparent data for citizens, as well as political reverberations and resource challenges. Nevertheless, I believe these are some of the obstacles that need to be navigated through on the way toward open data.

    To me, the “lowest bar” is the most basic use case: publish data on the web in a raw format (like .csv) on a regular and timely basis. This is technically very feasible through scripts and a scheduled task/cronjob, with FTP to a public site. Once this feasibility is established, other concerns may arise: privacy, data integrity (accuracy), questioning the value of the data to the citizens*, and primarily the uncertainty that comes in the public arena for starting something new**

    Regarding privacy, it is always helpful to have legal counsel review data before it goes live, and better yet, develop a policy for releasing data (a policy may already be in place for FOIA requests). Basically, remove non-public, personally identifiable information. Also, consider ‘sensitive’ datasets in terms of safety and security (politically sensitive doesn’t count).

    Regarding data integrity, if the information is good enough to use inside the organization, it is good enough to publish. I think SF has an interesting case study on this where a member of the public identified some discrepancies with Property Tax data. Yes, a bit embarrassing, but this is exactly the value of open data: improvement.

    * Sometimes this is communicated as: “citizens would not know how to use the data, we should make it into a report instead” – which I respond that every manipulation of the data is a biased view. And the data should come with the same spec in-house developers have (although this is sometimes a proprietary system/contract issue). Plus, making a new report raises the bar, and serves as an obstacle to truly open data. Additionally, it is helpful to reference the ecosystem of opengov developers who are willing and able to help make sense of this raw data, which also helps reduce the burden on government themselves.

    ** Case studies are useful for conveying the fact that open data is not brand new. There are several agencies that are doing this successfully and seeing beneficial results for doing so (SF, DC, Seattle, Portland, Manor TX, Oklahoma, Vancouver, and many more places in Europe).

    Good luck in Petaluma! I’m facing the same challenges in Solano County, with varying degrees of success.

  • #100495


    Hi Jaimey, this is an interesting question because it cuts to what I believe is the next phase of the open data discussion which is, “open data, to what purpose?”. Perhaps this should be the first phase but I’ll leave that alone for now.

    Daniel hit the nail on the head the the second para of his post; “you have identified a service that you believe will be beneficial to your citizens, instead of your citizens coming to you asking for this service”.

    Open data can be seen as the answer to a question no one has asked. So the magic is finding existing, substantiated citizen needs that can be addressed with the judicious use of open data. You also mention making it available in a format “we” can use. This begs the question; is there an internal operational or strategic need that supports your case?

    Ideally both needs exist. Find them and then look for similar (don’t have to be exact) examples to support your argument.

    I fully support Daniel’s idea to identify needs from outside groups, particularly ones that have an economic influence in the community.


  • #100493

    Kristy Dalton

    For anyone who hasn’t checked out Pew Internet’s latest study on Government Online, it quantifies and explains public use of government online services. The report also includes a look at governments opening up data. Here is an excerpt:

    “…state and local agencies are also getting into the act. The District of Columbia’s Apps for Democracy–which offered a cash prize to the developer who could produce the most user-friendly applications based on government data—ultimately led to the development of 47 different applications (with an estimated value to the city of $2.3 million) at a cost of just $50,000 in prize money. The City of Santa Cruz, California used collaborative online tools to enlist the help of citizens in closing a $9 million budget gap.”

    Download the full report here:

  • #100491

    Justin Mosebach


    One point might be (and you’d have to figure out if it would) save money on paperwork, etc. For example, printing out physical copies of something and hand-delivering them costs both time and money. Digitizing the format would save on both (time/money).

    Another idea would be to show them how it helps them to do their job easier. How can it help their workflow and make them more productive?


  • #100489

    Sterling Whitehead

    Run an experiment with your own time and show how you will save money for the city.

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