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Fostering open data: what community news can do

Local governments produce lots of data that can support compelling community stories -- but what if that data isn't easy to get, or use? A recent Knight Foundation interview offers hints for how community news publishers can encourage open local data.

As the first chief data officer for the City of Philadelphia, Mark Headd works directly with city agencies and departments to figure out how they release data to the public. This week in a Knight Foundation interview, he explained that people working in local government often see themselves as providing solutions (building websites, offering services, etc.) So they sometimes need guidance and encouragement to see themselves as stewards of public data.

How can community news and info publishers help improve access to local data?

According to Headd, when you ask for data, explain why you want the data, how you hope to help the community with it. According to Headd: "When people tell us, 'I need this data because it makes it easier for me to find a parking space,' or 'It will help me to decide what school to send my child to,' it helps us figure out how and why we should do this work."

This points to the value of doing some non-confrontational coverage. Data can certainly be used to uncover government malfeasance, neglect, or other problems, so it might not help to lay those particular cards on the table up front. But you don't have to start there.

Mostly local data can simply be useful -- it can help people understand community issues and make better decisions. If your city currently isn't as open with data as you'd like, crafting some data-supported reporting projects that are both useful to the community and where local government looks good for supplying the data might help grease the wheels for more challenging data disclosures.

Headd also recommends putting city data that's already available to good use. "Use it to make something. You don't have to build an app -- you can load a dataset into a Google spreadsheet and build a chart or other data visualizations. If the format of the data isn't accessible to you, tell your local government."

This points to the need for community journalists and news/info publishers to be data literate, and also to develop some basic data journalism skills.

What kinds of data might already be available? Headd believes that every city should, at a minimum, make available data about transit, crime, and local government expenditures.

Headd emphasized that open data is a process; putting local data online is just the start of a conversation. Ideally, local government employees who put data online continually engage with people who use data: journalists, academics, software developers, and the public. "We want to be in a long-term relationship with our users and make it better by incorporating their feedback. Sometimes people inside government think, 'If I publish the data, I'm done,' -- but really, that's just the beginning."

Of course, that kind of relationship all comes down to the individuals involved. When you're seeking local data, don't forget that this isn't just about accessing numbers; it's about working with people. Try to understand the perspective and considerations of local government, and find ways to work with them that encourage cooperation. Sometimes their data rules and processes can be confusing or frustrating. Fortunately, there's usually more than one person you can ask in order to gain access to the community data you need.

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