Community Data Dialogues

Learn how to host events to engage non-technical audiences on open data


This playbook accompanies our Guide to Tactical Data Engagement, a guidebook to help cities go beyond open data policies and platforms, to help residents use open data for community problem-solving. Tactical Data Engagement (TDE) helps data providers like city governments provide better open data and public information that’s tailored to community needs.

This guide aims to help cities engage nontechnical community members on data-driven policymaking, supplementing the Action phase of TDE. It is meant to be applied during the implementation stage of an open data project, after cities have used TDE to find and refine use cases for open data.

We designed playbooks to help jumpstart community action, providing stories about how open data advocates have co-designed, collaborated, and solved problems together using open data. The first playbook on Data User Groups was released in October 2017, and the second featured Open Data Scope-a-thons. This playbook is the third in our series. Playbooks are versatile, just like the rest of the TDE approach, and should be used creatively.

What are “Community Data Dialogues”?

Community Data Dialogues are in-person events designed to share open data with community members in the most digestible way possible to start a conversation about a specific issue. The main goal of the event is to give residents who may not have technical expertise but have local experience a chance to participate in data-informed decision-making. Doing this work in-person can open doors and let facilitators ask a broader range of questions. To achieve this, the event must be designed to be inclusive of people without a background in data analysis and/or using statistics to understand local issues. Carrying out this event will let decision-makers in government use open data to talk with residents who can add to data’s value with their stories of lived experience relevant to local issues.

These events can take several forms, and groups both in and outside of government have designed creative and innovative events tailored to engage community members who are actively interested in helping solve local issues but are unfamiliar with using open data. This guide will help clarify how exactly to make Community Data Dialogues non-technical, interactive events that are inclusive to all participants.

Why do they matter?

We’ve presented a number of strategies for community engagement on open data. But they tend to attract community data users who are well-versed in reading or using data.

This only accounts for a portion of the larger community. Many city residents are interested in participating in government decision making, but may feel they lack the capacity or expertise to understand data that may be relevant to issues that do in fact affect their lives. To accessibly engage all local residents, governments must be creative in determining new ways to bring non-data-savvy audiences into the conversation.

City governments might think of Community Data Dialogues as opportunities to bring more attention and usage to open data portals and other projects that would benefit from public feedback. It’s useful for data practitioners both in and outside of government to observe how non-data users engage with the information, as if offers them a more comprehensive understanding of how nontechnical audiences understand and make use of their data.

Attendees will benefit from Community Data Dialogues by having an easy and non-threatening entry point into understanding how the city uses data. By marketing events as “dialogues” and not as hacking events or data-centric activities, hosts might welcome people who are possibly threatened by overly technical messages about local issues.

Community members may be able to enrich existing data with their experiences of life in their communities. For instance, housing data related to new development projects may be augmented by the insights from community members living in the neighborhoods that will grow and change due to new construction. These residents may be able to comment on the quality of the projects, or on how local public spaces are actually use, or attest to the accuracy of maps of local amenities, etc. This qualitative data can bolster the accuracy and utility of the existing quantitative data used to make decisions.

Community organizers or civic hackers can act as facilitators for these events by helping governments design the Data Dialogues appropriately for the local community. These residents have connections within the community and leverage their networks to ensure that anyone interested has access to participate in the events.

Finally, governments should keep in mind the breadth of useful information to be gathered from these community events. While this playbook is framed in the context of open data work, public feedback can and should be sought out to inform policy, encourage democratic participation, gain insight on public perception of current projects, etc.

Examples from the field

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A number of groups both in and outside of government have facilitated accessible open data events to great success. Here are just a few examples from the field of what data-focused events tailored for a nontechnical audience can look like:

Data Days Cleveland

Data Days Cleveland is an annual one-day event designed to make data accessible to all. Programs are designed with inclusivity and learning in mind, making it a more welcoming space for people new to data work. Data experts and practitioners direct novices on the fundamentals of using data: making maps, reading spreadsheets, creating data visualizations, etc. April Hirsh, one of the founders of Data Days CLE, detailed the importance of data accessibility and bringing lived experiences into data-centered coversations.

From an article published on

Data Days CLE was born four years ago in response to a growing urgency to make data more publicly accessible and to transparently include data in civic decision-making.

What began as a small meetup inside a City Hall archival library has since grown into a regional movement, drawing in hundreds of data experts, advocates and dreamers who see data as an engine for building equity, reducing bias and creating accountability, according to Taylor Henschel, co-chair of the event and Microsoft Civic Innovation Fellow.

Lesson: Partnering with open data expert groups to upskill community members and advocates on data analysis can help them use cities’ open data offerings more effectively. 

The Urban Institute’s Data Walks

The Urban Institute’s Data Walks are an innovative example of presenting data in an interactive and accessible way to communities. Data Walks are events gathering community residents, policymakers, and others to jointly review and analyze data presentations on specific programs or issues and collaborate to offer feedback based on their individual experiences and expertise. This feedback can be used to improve current projects and inform future policies.

From an Urban Institute blog post on beta-testing Data Walks on their Housing Opportunity and Services Together (HOST) project:

We’re constantly evaluating new strategies to figure out what works. Our latest experiment: a “data walk” for residents of Altgeld Gardens, a public housing community and HOST site on Chicago’s South Side. Though our work is informed by residents’ experiences, residents aren’t typically involved in the ongoing data collection process. This time, though, we shared baseline survey and administrative data to hear what residents thought of the initiative and to learn what areas our data are not addressing. We are using their input to guide service provision for the remainder of the demonstration.

Community engagement in Altgeld Gardens is notoriously difficult, so we were prepared for the worst. But we worked hard with on-the-ground HOST staff to recruit families to participate and did our best to present the information in a user-friendly and engaging format. Ultimately, 28 adult residents and 8 HOST staff participated in our event—a great success in the Altgeld community. Here’s what we learned.

Our baseline survey revealed heartbreaking facts about food insecurity and hunger in Altgeld Gardens. About half of respondents didn’t have enough food to last the month or worried that their food supply would run out. One-fifth of residents had to cut the size of their meals to make food last longer.

It was shocking to hear responses from HOST staff and families; most felt the numbers should have been higher, indicating that food insecurity and hunger are more prevalent in the community than we expected.

Many adults reported that their children’s HOST experiences motivated them to engage in HOST services themselves. What resonated most for HOST adults and youth was being recognized for accomplishing their goals. As one case manager noted, “We had an event that was solely focused on the adults—they received awards and things of that nature—and afterward, my client came up to me and cried and said she had never been acknowledged like that.” We learned that whole family participation and recognition for reaching goals were huge motivating factors in getting HOST adults to take advantage of available services.

Lesson: Targeted outreach to ensure inclusivity in events can lead to critical insights that can be used to improve efficacy of policies and programs.

Read the full report »

Tips for successful events

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Community Data Dialogues must prioritize inclusivity and accessibility above all else. But before diving into the planning process for an event, it’s important to establish parameters and goals for the event. Collaborate with key stakeholders to draft an agenda, brainstorm target audience and take note of their potential needs. Some examples of questions to consider:

  • Who is most likely to attend this event?
    • How can we promote the event to ensure a wide range of residents attend?
  • Do participants need reassurance their feedback will be used?
  • How can we incentivize attendance?
    • Are participants able to access childcare?
    • Will the event be in an accessible location?
    • Will the event be language-accessible?

When planning the event itself, there are several steps organizers can take to ensure the event is as well-run and impactful as can be:

1. Before the event

Design accessible data visualizations/statistics

Preparation is key to ensuring impactful Community Data Dialogues. Data experts can work with communications or advocacy professionals to ensure their visualizations are clear, concise, and accessible. They should also work together to imagine the best ways of presenting their information and facilitating a discussion that respects the views of all attendees while still accomplishing the goals of the Dialogue. Organizers should think creatively of the best ways to publicize these events in their specific city contexts and how they might incentivize attendance. Looping in residents regularly engaged in the community can help.

  • Assemble data relevant to that purpose, in an accessible format
  • Design the event (if you have money, hire designers/data event experts)
  • Determine how to establish feedback loops for additional feedback following the event, and how organizers will respond to issues flagged by participants
  • Establish performance metrics to gauge impact
  • Promote widely to the community through multiple media channels
    • Post to social media accounts (implement small scale social media campaign if possible)
    • Flyers/bulletins in community gathering spaces (community centers, churches, homeless shelters, schools, local nonprofits etc.)
    • Engage local publications/bloggers
  • Print out graphs/statistics & gather any needed supplies
  • Research effective and inclusive facilitation strategies to ensure a welcoming, participatory environment

2. During the event

Focus on facilitation

Good facilitation means letting everyone have a chance to speak and ensuring that presentations or signage are as jargon-free as possible. Facilitating well should provide an opportunity to make people from a variety of backgrounds feel comfortable and ready to participate. Organizers can read up on effective, inclusive facilitation, design, or work directly with experts in the field to facilitate the event.

Our Data User Groups playbook is a great resource for conveners, with a number of tips for effective meetings and some guiding principles for bringing people together to collaborate on data.

  • Have people sign in and try to gather information on any community organizations people may be affiliated with; take note of attendance counts
  • Document insights (photos, note-taking) 
  • Share next steps with participants (e.g., how insights will be used, how they can follow up directly)

3. After the event

Close feedback loops

Make sure to do something with documented feedback, as it’s important for local governments to be responsive. People learn to trust by seeing that action was taken, and follow through on feedback will help encourage more people to participate in future convenings. Ideally, post feedback online and describe what actions were taken.

  • Synthesize feedback 
  • Make a plan to incorporate feedback into action, whether improving upon the current work or incorporating feedback into future iterations of the work
  • Publish follow-up on action taken as a result of the event (close feedback loops) 
  • Create channels for participants to share feedback on the event itself
    • What worked well? What could be made better?
  • Analyze meta stats / success of the event, and track progress over time for future events


In conclusion, there are a multitude of ways cities and open data advocates and organizations can engage non-technical residents in understanding local data and using it to inform public policy. Creativity and flexibility are pivotal in the design of inclusive analog events, and, done well, they exemplify some of the robust, inclusive methods of community engagement seen today. Organizers should be sure to document key takeaways and insights from the events, as well as asking for community feedback to inform future iterations, helping to ensure they remain useful and impactful for all parties.