Case Study

User-Centered Design for Increasing Open Data Use

How a strategic understanding of current and potential users of city data—and their role in the data ecosystem—is helping New York City realize its promise of Open Data for All.


The value of open data is not measured in the number of data sets a city publishes; it’s measured in the number of problems that city residents are able to solve using that data in their daily lives and work. Recognizing this truth, in 2015 New York City launched the “Open Data for All” initiative to increase the accessibility and appeal of open data for New Yorkers. The Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation (MOTI) engaged Reboot to develop a research-based strategy for the public-facing side of this initiative. We took an applied ethnography approach to develop a deep understanding of a wide spectrum of people in the city’s open data ecosystem—from the civic tech data whiz advocating for more metadata to the busy bystander investigating a local civic issue. Through semi-structured interviews and direct observation, we surfaced a wealth of stories that made clear the meaning and potential uses of open data. We then turned these stories into a set of user personas, as well as an “Impact Cycle” framework, as tools for MOTI to integrate the findings throughout its work. Our analysis and recommendations are now helping MOTI to engage and support targeted users through technical improvements, strategic communications, and investments—a systems approach to increasing the impact of open data as part of a wider ecosystem.

In recent decades, cities and advocates across the United States have made huge strides in opening their data to the public. But this approach—”if you build it, they will come”—has increasingly come under scrutiny from the open data community, as download and usage rates of data have plateaued. For many cities, the promise of open data seems to be falling short; many are wondering whether technical issues, data capacity, public awareness, or other hidden factors are to blame.

New York City, a leader in the open data movement and a pioneer in increasing open data supply, is now leading the charge to solve this new challenge of open data demand. New York is the only city that has enshrined open data in law, and has committed to releasing all of its 1,600+ city datasets to the public through its flagship Open Data Portal. With the “Open Data for All” initiative launched in 2015, the City is now working to make this wealth of data appealing and accessible to all New Yorkers. The Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation (MOTI) engaged Reboot to help shape and guide the public-facing strategy of the initiative, in recognition of both our previous successful work with New York City and our long expertise in using open data for impact.