6. Ongoing community engagement


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Cities with open data agendas across Canada have seen the evidence that the so-called “Field of Dreams” model—if you build it, they will come—is a false promise. The fundamental practice here is to invest the time it takes to find a deep, abiding groundswell of one or more public concerns the city is in a position to address. This can be especially challenging for cities that tend to regard local residents as clients, or mere service users. Putting in place a two-way communication process based on the priorities of local residents can help set the stage for longer term engagement.

Offline community building

One way to build support among local stakeholders is to demonstrate that you’ll respect their feedback and commitment wisely. The most effective way to do this is to practice your values, priorities, and expectations in a way that is visible to them. This is a kind of community building. The right place to start any effort is where your stakeholders are already active (face-to-face or digital). Here are a few small steps that can speak volumes:

  • Start by actively listening to local residents. By virtue of their day to day experience in their communities and use of services, local residents have a great deal of valuable feedback to offer you that can inform your open data project. For example, they can ascertain the gravity of a problem, its frequency, perceived causes, and what solution would make the most sense from the perspective of those most affected. Actively listening means capturing the context from which the demand for open data arises. This may apply to a range of stakeholders, including local businesses.
  • Piggy-back existing events. You could participate in an upcoming community event, such as your local tech meetup or a community organized hackathons, and ask for specific feedback or hold a stand-alone event on a given topic by convening local stakeholders in collaboration with relevant city agencies. Make sure to introduce yourself to the organizers and ask for their permission to briefly consult the audience.

Hackathons usually last 1 or 2 days and attract significant visibility locally. Based on principles of co-creation and collaboration, they tend to be focused on a particular topic or problem area. Participants group themselves in teams to work on a project idea using available data in collaboration with subject matter experts that are present to provide advice. Hackathons usually end with a series of presentations by each team and a prize is sometimes allocated by a jury. They are open to the community and a diversity of stakeholders, many with a minimum of technical skills. Cities have an important role to play as they can prepare and release data for these events

Further reading:

What are hackathons?
Open Data Hackathon How to Guide

Examples (there are many more!):
HacktheNorth.com (Waterloo)
HackingHealth.ca (Canada-wide)
AquaHacking.com (various locations in Canada)

  • Sustain the dialogue. The type of one off outreach suggested so far will only succeed if you expect and plan for a sustained two-way communication strategy. Be clear in setting realistic expectations and always following-up. It’s important to account for diversity and asking yourself who is not being consulted beyond the usual suspects. For example, you can identify local problems by reviewing 311 data and call-in information organized by your city’s geographical units. Are the people that you are engaging directly affected by the issues that might inform opening up data? Problem framing can be iterative and revisited with different audiences throughout your planning process. You can refine the questions that you ask external stakeholders based on questions and/or concerns expressed by internal stakeholders.
  • Expand your base. Collaborating with key community leaders with a range of stakeholders groups can help establish and maintain a continuous connections to validate and expand your initiative. These leaders are most likely already connected. Hosting a multi-stakeholder group of leaders from academia, social, associations, and businesses to provide you with feedback on your activities can also be done informally at the initial stage of your initiative. Many of these activities will take place in the evening and may require a time commitment outside of business hours. Your presence will be appreciated and help demonstrate your engagement.

Online community building

Experience shows that rapid interactions build a social media community more effectively than spaced out interactions. Social media response time norms are quicker than email or face-to-face. Making more data available to the public is good but it needs to be supported by rapid responsiveness in order to make the data more easily discoverable. You may also adapt your messaging to appeal to the interests and motivations of different members of the open data community and stakeholder groups (see the benefits in the section: Why Should I Care - Where’s the value? What’s the risk?). Your online engagement enables you to research your followers and stakeholders and provide them with information and notifications more directly. It’s good practice to establish standard response times. In consultation with your city’s communication team, Your online community strategy should make sure to strike a balance between promoting your initiative, recognizing those of community data users, and sharing tools and resources for their benefit.

Use cases or impact stories from other cities, such as those collected for this do-it-yourself toolkit, could help inspire your community. We also encourage you to post dynamic content, like short videos or interviews with data managers or elected officials supporting your project. This enhances the visibility of your open data program or project and confirms its significance in public eye, building interest and excitement.

Help interested stakeholders develop literacy with open data

Most early iterations of open data were designed solely for advanced users but this is changing now that more cities like yours are joining the open data community. Expect the broader public and local media to demonstrate interest. Maturing open data requires making technical skills and knowledge more accessible, which is the demand and interests that groups like Open Data Book Clubs, Civic Tech Nights, and Data MeetUps are seeking to address. Code for Canada has also helped connect data literate and civically minded tech activists and professionals. However, there are demographics less familiar with open data who are interested in participating, and best practices include helping them develop literacy and awareness of your commitment to open data at a minimum. Creating profiles of different data users and their level of data literacy, interests, and needs, helps you develop more tailored data literacy support materials. An introductory video set of tutorials could help connect your ecosystem.