Open Data Maturity Scale

Learn about different possible open data interventions, based on level of feasibility and impact

I have open data, I want to use it to make an impact, I know what my community needs, but I don’t know what to do.

Based on our work with U.S. cities, we know that open data providers have varied capacities to apply open data to address real community issues. Local governments in particular have to decide how much to invest in open data programs, and whether they should aim for feasible, short-term solutions, or impactful, long-term solutions. Most often, open data innovators are looking for something in the middle.

We created this taxonomy to help cities self-examine their open data maturity, and determine how exactly to improve or apply open data for local impact.

Maturity Ladder graphic

In order to even decide how to adapt open data for local impact, open data providers need to understand what their community members need. Once open data providers have a set of user personas and use cases in mind, they can choose to focus on one persona or use case where there’s a strong potential for local impact.

Open data providers with lower maturity might be able to make feasible, short-term improvements to open data that will set the stage for impact on the issues they care about in the long-term. Other, more mature open data providers, might be more prepared to provide grants or take on new partnerships that leverage open data for maximal community impact.

How does this connect to Tactical Data Engagement (TDE)?

Tactical Data Engagement requires exploring current and potential open data user needs (during the Discovery Phase) and then working with users to design and execute an open data intervention to support those needs (during the Action Phase). A TDE intervention is a key concept as cities look to put open data user research into action.

What is a TDE intervention?

Simply put, a tactical open data intervention is whatever short-term action a city decides to take to help members of the community use city data. As such, an intervention can be thought of as a “prototype,” “pilot,” or “beta launch” of any new data, guidance, communication, project, initiative, tool, or partnership to support open data’s use.

What type of intervention can you support?

1. Lower barriers to access

Often, the most feasible solutions to help community members start with undoing the barriers to access to information. At a fundamental level, community members cannot use data that they do not have access to.

Although many open data providers have found, through their work, that just publishing data does not alone generate “impact,” basic open data still plays a foundational role in enabling government transparency and accountability. Tackling fundamental access to information is where most open data programs start, but it is most certainly not where they should end.

Opening access to public information or open data can mean publishing it online, but it can also mean removing technical requirements for accessing data, removing legal protections, or compiling data to a central or easy-to-find location.

  • Practical access: Proactively publish data your target community users need — such as data that is frequently requested via FOIA or commonly viewed and downloaded in other cities.
  • Technical access: Re-examine which data your governance systems identify as “sensitive” and whether releasing it would actually pose a public risk.
  • Legal access: Choose open licenses for your open data and tech tools.
  • Cultural access: Translate data and accompanying resources into languages native or comfortable for community users, and/or make it accessible for people with disabilities.
  • Public awareness: Invest in communications and marketing for open data and tools.

2. Diversify tools and resources 

Beyond just providing access to relevant open data, open data providers need to design data releases for specific uses, which means making intentional choices about the way in which the data is presented. 

At this level, open data providers may have published some raw data in a basic format, but users who can use the data to generate the most impact may prefer data that’s presented as holistic indicators, or as interactive maps, or as analytic visualizations. It’s impossible to know until data providers get out into the community and refine their understanding of community needs for information. 

  • Data tools: Build maps or visualizations that address specific research questions.
  • Data standards: Enable interoperability, analysis, and collaboration by publishing data in industry-leading data standards or schemas.
  • Data resources: Publish robust metadata, how-to guides, plain language descriptions, or other documentation to ensure that users apply data correctly.
  • Curated data: Curate a collection of datasets that might be combined to better understand a specific issue or address a community use case.
  • Data help desks: Provide contact information for City department data owners who can help answer questions about how to find or use open data.
  • Data trainings: Provide data 101 trainings for community users who may not have technical capacity to use raw city data, but want to learn about the benefits of open data.

3. Build channels for responsiveness

Open data providers need to be aware that even with strong user research and an initial understanding of community issues, users’ needs will change and potential applications will evolve as local issues evolve. The only way to ensure that open data remains relevant and actionable is to build channels for data owners to continuously collect and respond to community needs. 

At its best, open data can help start a dialogue between governments and their residents by giving people a shared foundation to discuss issues relevant to their communities. Although data might be at the core of a healthy, facts-based dialogue, it’s more important for residents to feel that their needs are being heard. For residents to provide input on public matters, governments need to commit to responsiveness as a core part of transparency.

Interventions that build channels for responsiveness revolve around establishing the necessary infrastructure for future open data managers to have the input they need to make ongoing quality improvements. Establishing these channels often feels small, but incorporating feedback into various open data workflows is a big step toward making open data actionable and impactful in the long-term. 

  • Allow users to prioritize: Publish and regularly update a data inventory including prioritization rankings and allow for community to provide on-going input, and plan to adapt publication priorities accordingly.
  • Allow users to tell you in person: Establish a mechanism, like a meeting series or pop-up booth, to regularly ask people in person about what information they’d like to see online, then publish the feedback and the requested data regularly.
  • Allow users to write in: Set up feedback forms and surveys, ideally across relevant web pages, that include allowing users to request public information or data.
  • Empower advisory groups: Develop and manage open data user groups to keep up-to-date with emerging needs or issues, and deliver actual results.
  • Crowdsource new data: Invite community members to contribute to new open data that reflects community concerns about a specific local issue, for example, bike lane parking violations, and respond to those concerns.

4. Share examples of success

If there are ways to apply open data where certain community groups or users have already tried and succeeded, open data providers should highlight and share those successes for future users. Often, data portals only hold data from one provider, but if community partners have built tools that address specific research questions, data owners should make an effort to connect users to those solutions. Users can either replicate successful open data applications or recognize when their work would duplicate someone else’s efforts, thus leading to stronger collaboration and opening the door for more community impact through open data.

Interventions might take the form of showcases or story maps that show users specific open data applications, or “super-documentation” like instruction manuals to help users replicate solutions. Depending on the local open data environment, open data providers may have to go outside of their communities to find helpful success stories.

  • Create how-to guides: If you know how you want users to apply your open data, write down the necessary steps and make specific guidance that’s easy to use.
  • Highlight power users: If key community partners are common open data users, publish their tools, indicators, datasets, or success stories on your website.
  • Publish problem statements: Incentivize users to help solve specific community challenges by publishing research questions you want users to answer using open data.
  • Track success stories: Document and publish examples of all of the applications of your open data that you’ve found “in the wild” to show users what’s already out there.

5. Catalyze a robust ecosystem

Open data providers can foster long-term progress toward impactful tech and data use by investing in community supports that involve equal participation from local governments, technologists, community experts, and residents. Note that enabling effective participation from these four groups sometimes requires having completed the necessary open data improvements from earlier maturity levels.

Many civic tech efforts have begun with building communities around technology use, but have not taken into account the various barriers to access, use, responsiveness, and effective applications that might exist in their work. Many civic tech projects have failed due to a lack of integration into the communities that are most deeply affected by social and economic issues that concern local governments.

Interventions that catalyze strong civic tech and open data ecosystems can seek to convene members from across backgrounds to ensure that those most affected local issues have a voice in developing innovative data and technology solutions. Building the connective tissue between people who have lived experience of local issues and those who have the skills to implement solutions can help foster a place-based culture of inclusive collaboration and experimentation.

  • Open source civic hacking: Convene civic hackers and community members to collaboratively provide input and adapt civic tools that help solve specific community challenges.
  • Invite new ideas: Host scope-a-thons, hack-a-thons, ideas challenges, or Transparency Camps to invite residents to propose new challenges, solutions, and initiatives based on open data for community impact.
  • Build social networks: Invest in social or community-building events for local civic hackers, journalists, technologists, business owners, and residents that revolve around community problem-solving using open data and civic tech.
  • Host data challenges: Run annual or otherwise regular events where community members can propose solutions to community challenges using tech and open data.

6. Formalize community partnerships

For governments

At the end of the day, impactful open data applications require actual financial or in-kind investment in groups with subject matter expertise. Open data is just one component of solving local challenges, and it must be combined with social efforts to reform public policies and programs in order to bring about impactful data-driven solutions.

This level of intervention requires for open data providers to collaborate and share power with external partners who can use open data to complete their work in support of community development or well-being. Partners may be actively involved in data collection, maintenance and quality assurance, or in the use and application of relevant data. Local governments in particular should take an equity mindset to their community partnerships and investigate how open data can help empower and uplift community-driven movements to create the change they want to see.

  • Share bulk data: Find community partners who have use for individual-level, granular, or bulk data, and create new data-sharing agreements or stand up new APIs to provide them with the data they need.
  • Revamp contracts: Write open data into new contract templates or upcoming service contracts so that organizations providing community services gain access to or have a hand in creating new, relevant, usable open data that empowers their work.
  • Provide grants: Open up grant opportunities that reward community organizations for using open data, either by awarding points for open data-centric applications, or by providing open data literacy training and capacity-building as part of all community partnerships.
  • Co-manage open data: Fund local partners to participate in open data collaboratives, including through shared efforts to collect new data or build civic tools.