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 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 Tactical Data Engagement. It is meant to be applied during the implementation stage of a TDE project.

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 open to community members where data experts share open data in the most digestible way possible to inform and prompt input on a specific question. The main goal of the event is to give a wider range of people access to participate in data-informed decision-making and to bring decision-making to an in-person setting. To achieve this, events must be designed to be inclusive of people without a background in data analysis and/or using statistics in open data work. Carrying out this event will provide decision-makers in government  who are making use of open data a chance to collect let residents with lived experience inform solutions 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 engaging community members who are actively interested in engaging, but are unfamiliar with using open data. This guide will help clarify what elements are necessary to make Community Data Dialogues accessible to a non-technical public, and inclusive so that participants have an equal voice in informing local decision-making.

Why do they matter?

We’ve presented a number of strategies for community engagement on open data. But they tend to work best when engaging community data users who are well-versed in the use of open 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 specific issue areas. In the interest of ensuring community engagement is inclusive and accessible to all, governments must be creative in determining new ways to bring non-data-savvy audiences into the conversation.

CIties can view Community Data Dialogues as opportunities to bring more attention and usage to their 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 as to how nontechnical audiences understand and make use of their data.

Community members may be able to enrich existing data with anecdotal accounts of their lived experiences. For instance, housing data related to new development projects may be augmented by the insights from community members living in the targeted neighborhoods. These residents may be able to comment on the status of the projects, attest to the accuracy of location data, 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 interested people are aware of 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

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 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.

> 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 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.

Tips for successful events

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? How can we incentivize attendance? Do participants need reassurance their feedback will be used? Are they 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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.