September 21, 2018

For the Open Cities Summit, Refocus on the Forgotten: How Open Data Can Revitalize Neighborhoods

Every city has its forgotten quarters—places where sought-after urban opportunities and resources rarely reach residents, and neighborhoods fall into disrepair.

Here in New York City, the neighborhood of Brownsville could be considered one of those forgotten quarters. A few years ago, an assessment of homelessness across the city traced many homeless New Yorkers’ origin back to Brownsville. The neighborhood is on the outskirts of Brooklyn, and has been called one of the borough’s “most dangerous neighborhoods” by Time Magazine. Brownsville is also home to almost 60,000 people—New Yorkers who deserve better.

So how can we start refocusing our cities’ attention on the neighborhoods that have been too-long forgotten?

That’s the kind of question that is driving the Open Cities Summit next week—a gathering of practitioners and leaders focused on redefining the social contract at the city level, ahead of the 2018 International Open Data Conference (IODC18). Reboot is proud to be a co-organizer of the Open Cities Summit. We’ll be leading and participating in discussions about open contracting, open data, participatory budgeting, and other ways of making city governments more transparent and accountable to the people they serve, especially the people living in “forgotten” quarters.

Case Studies in Change from Brownsville

Data can be a powerful way to direct attention to these neighborhoods, as can be shown by a recent collaboration here in New York City between The Brownsville Partnership and New Yorkers for Parks. The Brownsville Partnership is a coalition of non-profit organizations and city partners collaborating to help residents and community stakeholders make the changes they want to see in their neighborhood. The organization has questioned how much of Brownsville’s misfortune—a direct result of public neglect—is the product of a particular narrative, borne out of a particular set of data, that limited the resources allocated to the New Yorkers living there.

To help change that narrative, the organization partnered with the advocacy and research organization New Yorkers for Parks to perform an “Open Space Index” study focused on the neighborhood.

The Open Space Index evaluates 14 NYC-specific goals for the maintenance, variety, and environmental sustainability of open space, as well as access to it. New Yorkers for Parks used publicly available data (such as park inspection data, available on NYC Open Data) for the research, as well as engaging directly with The Brownsville Partnership and local stakeholders.

The resulting study—grounded in data, driven by local voices—is a tangible way for Brownsville as a community to plan for the future and to advocate for support from the city to revitalize its public spaces.

Updating “demand-driven” concepts of open data

This is the kind of use case that advocates of open data have long championed: Local, grassroots organizations benefiting from governmental transparency. But the work in Brownsville is not happening through the traditional open data routes.

Oftentimes, efforts to make government data accessible in a readable, shareable, freely-available format are rooted in market terminology of supply and demand. Yet, the assumption that demand will follow an increase in supply has rarely led to success—making data available doesn’t mean that people actually use it.

Here at Reboot, we have worked extensively with cities seeking to improve outcomes by making their data available, usable, and valuable to all residents. Our work on the users and use cases of city-based data has shown that open data is not really about supply and demand, and discussing it in this context can be limiting.

That’s because open data isn’t really a “market.” When it functions well, open data is more of an ecosystem. Framing open data work through market-based terms like “supply” and “demand” can obscure the approaches that are most fruitful, which are multi-faceted and are based in collaboration and partnerships.

cycle of impact visual

The term “ecosystem” more accurately reflects the organic relationships being built around open data in Brownsville. New Yorkers for Parks and The Brownsville Partnership are finding success through collaboration. A range of skills are required to apply open data to everyday problems, including not just data analysis but problem identification, prioritization, communication, and more. Taking a peer-learning approach has allowed these two groups to bridge a broader range of necessary skills. Our “Open Data Impact Cycle” shows how we visualize these diverse and necessary skills, and is based on our research of open data users in New York City.

The Ecosystem Includes Both City and Grassroots Actors

The ecosystem goes beyond the grassroots—city actors are part of the ecosystem, too.

The Brownsville Partnership and New Yorkers for Parks joined a Community Information Needs workshop this spring, which Reboot organized in partnership with the NYC Parks Department. At that workshop, the groups discussed with their counterparts in city government how they face a lot of the same challenges in using data to solve problems. During the workshop, both sides worked to reframe the open data narrative to focus on collaboration and communication, enabling a more fruitful engagement with stakeholders inside and outside of government.

Extrapolating from that workshop, city stakeholders might find that considering themselves “providers” of data is less valuable. They may find greater success with their open data initiatives by considering themselves part of the ecosystem. In this framing, open data is “supplied” and “demanded” both within and outside of government. Focusing on shared aspirations is more effective and constructive than establishing one-sided responsibilities.

Join the Conversation at the Open Cities Summit (Or From Your Desk!)

Catch Reboot at the Open Cities Summit on September 24, 2018. Apart from being a co-organizer, we’ll be facilitating a workshop in partnership with Open Data Durban, IREX, and the City of Buenos Aires on the problem-solving potential of open data. Reboot will also be speaking on a panel on “Smart Cities and Open Data” at 11AM on September 28, 2018, at IODC18.

You can find out how to participate here, or contact me directly at marielle@reboot.org.

And if you’re interested in continuing this conversation, sign up here to receive the Reboot newsletter—we’ll be sending out a special “executive summary” version of our takeaways from the Summit, with lessons learned for city-level changemakers everywhere.

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Photos: Adapted from Elvert Barnes and Adi Talwar

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