Image credit: ODI/Caley Dewhurst

Open Cities – international roundtable summary note

Wed Mar 31, 2021
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A summary note of the international roundtable discussion which we convened with city stakeholders to seed a peer community of senior city officials and city policymakers from around the world

 

This summary note has been produced by the Open Data Institute (ODI) and published on 31 March 2021. If you want to share feedback by email or would like to get in touch, contact [email protected]

Introduction

The Open Data Institute (ODI) has been exploring the concept of making cities more open for several years. In 2019 we started to explore the benefit, importance and value of this, with a particular focus on the role of data, in more detail.

On 18 February 2021, the ODI convened an international roundtable discussion with city stakeholders to seed a peer community of senior city officials and city policymakers from around the world. The meeting aimed to explore the benefits and challenges of data sharing and data collaboration with digital technologies across the public, private and third sectors, and to identify and share data-sharing good practice in civic projects.

Attendees participated from Sweden, Mexico, Argentina, the Netherlands, Colombia, Belgium, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. The discussion was held under the Chatham House Rule: ‘participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed’. This summary note is a synthesis and distillation of the high-level themes and observations that emerged in discussion.

Dialogue

Roundtable meeting attendees identified the use of dialogue as a strategic tool, and noted that often, initiating, facilitating, or convening dialogue around a shared challenge might be the most significant aspect of managing data sharing in a civic project. However, it was also recognised that stakeholders may feel that they can’t always deliver on expectations that come with raising an issue or challenge, and this may stop them initiating dialogue.

Attendees also recognised that an independent third party with data expertise would be useful to help facilitate these discussions, supporting candid exploration that allowed stakeholders more freedom about whether or how to take action forward.

In general, dialogue seemed to be most productive for establishing a common goal, rather than a common challenge. Dialogue was also productive when leadership representatives could empower and resource stakeholders to take actions towards that common goal.

Strategy

The attendees emphasised the importance of sharing data for a clear reason, rather than being an end in itself – the conversation explored ‘open with purpose’ versus ‘open on principle’. For example, one effective approach might be to establish agreement on use cases with high urgency and/or high impact for social good – such as a pandemic response or mitigating climate change – and focus on the intended outcome, with parameters and quantification.

This would help identify relevant stakeholders, as well as drive engagement and participation with the project. Roundtable attendees also favoured this approach for less urgent use cases that had broader parameters – such as improving cross-departmental or cross-organisation collaboration more generally as part of optimising overall service provision. Under this approach, once an overall city strategy is set, openness might be a tool that can help advance and achieve the overall city goals.

When managing data-sharing initiatives in civic projects, roundtable meeting attendees found it very effective to begin with the most important or high-profile datasets, as an indication of institutional support for, and confidence in, the project. Another advantage of this approach is creating momentum, and setting a high benchmark, making it more likely that further datasets will be released.

Tools and approaches

Attendees highlighted the importance of formalising successful data-sharing frameworks, for example as policy or as law. This enables stakeholders to have the confidence to plan and invest for the longer term, without feeling that there was a risk of leaders and policymakers withdrawing support as political priorities change over time. A practical alternative to ‘hard’ policy tools such as legislation might be ‘soft’ policy tools such as charters and codes of ethics: establishing these could also be a foundational step for developing ‘hard’ policy tools as the civic data ecosystem grows and matures.

Attendees also highlighted two key aspects of communication. The first aspect was around communicating the goals of the project, and thinking beyond ‘Who would benefit from access to this data?’ to ‘Who would benefit from knowing about what we’re trying to accomplish?’.

By being open about work in progress, and by proactively signalling intentions and goals, it broadens the project’s reach and enables and empowers a wider range of stakeholders to proactively engage with the project team. Similarly, a framing of ‘here’s why we care about data’ was considered more effective than a framing of ‘here’s why data is important’. The former can help initiate dialogue and collaboration, foster trust through exchanging perspectives, and establish common goals.

Some attendees reported a civic culture of ‘data belongs to citizens and the public sector has a responsibility to ensure it benefits citizens’; others highlighted the importance of international networks for showing what is possible, and finding commonalities for frameworks that can then be tailored for local contexts.

Attendees acknowledged the importance of trust for any civic data-sharing project. One approach for helping to foster and maintain trust while introducing new data-related initiatives is to frame those initiatives as pilots or as experimental approaches.This can be an easier or more palatable ‘ask’ for risk-averse budget holders or leaders, and can also help manage expectations or pressures on the project team and their stakeholder relationships – thus supporting better conditions for collaboration and innovation.

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