Chattanooga, TN: Open Data

City of Chattanooga, Tennessee

Population: 167,674 (2010)

Form of government: Mayor-council

Open data champions: Jenny Park and Tim Moreland, Open Government Specialists

Date of interview: June 2014

What were the most important steps you took to get open data off the ground?

One of the most important steps the open data community took was to meet with then Mayor-elect Andy Berke before his administration began. Luckily he was already sold on the idea of open data as a powerful platform for civic change and very supportive of opening city data. We cannot stress how important it was to have a strong champion at the start of the open data initiative. One important outcome of his commitment was to provide the then-co-captains (Tim and Jenny) of the Open Chattanooga Brigade office space and time within the Mayor’s Office to work on the City’s open data initiative as the Open Government Specialists. This provided direct access to the Mayor, senior administration staff and department heads that would not have been possible otherwise.

Another important step was fostering partnerships to further the open data initiative. Early on in the open data initiative we had several key partners onboard including: City of Chattanooga, Chattanooga Public Library, Benwood Foundation and the Open Chattanooga Brigade.

How did you prioritize open data in your city?

We weren’t totally systematic with this and handled the prioritization a few different ways. Some of the priority datasets were intuitive, holding obvious value for multiple stakeholders or passion groups. We (Tim and Jenny) had led the Brigade before we transitioned into the Mayor’s Office, so we had already identified many of these and had a good starting point. We also had (and continue to have) weekly meetings with the new Brigade co-captains during which we’d add data requests to our queue. The third way we prioritized data was to look for datasets that were easy and also of potential value to data consumers. Staff in the Department of Information Technology (DIT) thought through the datasets that they worked with and identified ones that were easy to extract, already in the right formats, and had little or no private or proprietary information. Pursuing these alongside some of the tougher ones (311, crime, etc.) made the process feel like it was moving faster and gave us a little more to show.

We also felt it important to institutionalize the prioritization in our policy, so the executive order addressed this. Each City department has to identify and publish priority datasets on the portal. Priority is also given to data frequently requested by members of the public, such as through open records requests.

Now that our open data portal is up and running, registered users can also suggest datasets they’d like on the portal.

What have been the biggest challenges?

One of the biggest challenges has been dealing with uncertainty that comes with having to shift directions throughout the project. So far we have shifted from inhouse development of our open data portal to working with a third party company and had to rethink the role of the Open Government and Open Data Specialists as a result. This has shifted some of the original tasks foreseen for the Open Government Specialists (Tim and Jenny) and the library’s Open Data Specialist. During this same time the City hired a new Chief Information Officer to lead and reimagine the Department of Information Technology which required close coordination to onboard him and his department.

Another challenge was the nonexistence of an open data culture within city government. This has made it difficult to convince department heads of the value of opening up their data to the public. In many cases just educating them about what what is and isn’t open data was the first step in gaining their support.

What tactics have you tried to overcome those challenges?

Remaining flexible and open to change has been key to moving the project forward despite all the changes. For example, when it was taking longer than expected to hire the civic engagement coordinator who would serve as the co-captain for the Open Chattanooga Brigade, we (Tim and Jenny) had to step in and take over those tasks to keep momentum with the brigade moving forward.

Having regular meetings with our key partners has perhaps been the most important tactics to keep the project moving forward and address some of these challenges. Each Friday the Open Chattanooga partners (Mayor’s Office, Chattanooga Public Library, Benwood Foundation, Open Chattanooga Brigade) as well as our CfA Fellows (often virtually) meet in the Mayor’s conference room to give status updates and come up with the next week’s action items. With so many players and so many moving parts, this weekly check-in has helped us stay on track and also provided a time for us to talk strategically about our next moves.

How have you proved the value for open data?

I don’t know that we’ve proven it yet. I think we’ve seen an understanding of open data within City government that wasn’t there before, which is a success. But, I think there is still much to be done to prove the value of the open data. We are still in the early days of getting our datasets out to the public so the value added from their interaction with the data has not yet occurred. Our 2014 Code for America fellows have been hugely important in starting to move this conversation from concept to a real understanding of the benefits of open data to City government and citizens. We’re looking forward to having more local examples instead of describing civic apps and stories generated in other cities. We see that starting to happen, with groups like MaptimeCHA starting. Next month, our Brigade is hosting a data training for local journalists, using our portal. We’ve got stories and are starting to teach and to learn how data can help tell them.

What are some of your early successes?

One early success coming out of our open data initiative was the release of the an Open Data Executive Order by the Mayor on the National Day of Civic Hacking. This order institutionalized much of the our work by creating a framework by which data is identified and inventoried, prepared for and then published on the City’s open data portal. By developing the executive order open in the public on GitHub we were able to engage the local community and the broader open government community.

What has been your most successful argument for generating buy-in among the government staff or community?

I don’t know that it’s a particular argument or piece of evidence; I think for us it has mainly been executive leadership that moved the needle, not just for internal staff, but also in connecting with community data owners. Of Mayor Berke’s five campaign platforms, two were Government Accountability and Transparency & Civic Engagement, so at least some of the outcomes that open data help achieve were already in the public conversation. At the heart of it is that it just makes sense to do; Mayor Berke’s administration advocates for smarter, more efficient government, and open data helps get us there.