New ‘Tactical Data Engagement’ guide shows cities how to make transparency count

Sunlight Foundation aims to end the common practice of governments simply dumping data online and hoping for the best.

A new document published Wednesday by transparency advocacy group the Sunlight Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Work Cities initiative explains the steps cities can take to elevate their open data practices beyond the perfunctory.

The guide — called Tactical Data Engagement — draws on the foundation’s work with more than 50 government organizations to identify best practices, share case studies and outline processes that would allow cities to go beyond the bare-minimum legal and technical outcomes and dive into the realm of community engagement and data-driven project leadership.

Amid Sunshine Week — a week-long data transparency awareness campaign led by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press — the foundation is encouraging readers to submit suggestions and new ideas for the guide, which is now in beta.

Open data has long been criticized for its often directionless management and questionable value proposition. Stephen Larrick, open data project lead at the Sunlight Foundation told StateScoop that this guide is an effort to bring cities beyond the point of simply releasing data and waiting to see what happens.


Cities are making great progress on developing infrastructure and legal frameworks to provide basic access, but they need to “go a little bit further,” Larrick said.

“When we talk about open data, we often talk about a certain kind of promise of not just opening up information, but we’re also opening up opportunities for more collaborative decision making and co-creation of … technological tools or other forms of data-driven community solutions,” he said.

In the guide, Sunlight walks readers through how these types of “critical” community engagements can happen. Case studies include a 2014 effort in Washington, D.C., that combined an in-person “data walk” with city data to provide new understanding, context and color to issues around teen sexual health. Rather than using a pure quantitative analysis, the community outreach enabled the DC Housing Authority — which was leading a project called Promoting Adolescent Sexual Health and Safety — to focus on the issues that mattered to the community most and could have the greatest potential impact.

The conversation works the other way, too, Larrick said — cities should also be answering questions from citizen and advocacy organizations to find out what data they need most so government can facilitate projects led by the community.

In one instance, this style of open collaboration bolstered efforts by the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization to identify negligent and unscrupulous landlords. They needed data and technical expertise. The City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County were able to provide both through university partner Case Western University’s Poverty Center. The university was able to clean the data and ultimately launch a portal called the Northeast Ohio Community and Neighborhood Data for Organizing (NEO CANDO). No longer would the group need to search for data about housing violations on an ad-hoc basis, but rather their efforts are now backed by a consistent and reliable data source.


“They can now not just go after one problem at a time, but find all of them and cause a larger community change,” Larrick said.

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