Q&A: Kansas City Leaders Talk Data-Driven Engagement

Earlier this spring, at the Project on Municipal Innovation Advising Group’s 13th convening, I had the opportunity to listen to a panel of city leaders and open data experts discuss the future of everything cities, data, and tech. One city leading the way in finding innovative and impactful municipal uses for open data is Kansas City, Missouri. During the conference’s “Relationship between Open Data, Performance Management and Application Development” panel, Kansas City was highlighted for its use of open data to tackle persistent urban problems and respond more effectively to the needs of its citizens. Following this session, I spoke with Kansas City’s Office of Performance Management to learn more.

Cities are often constrained by limited resources and must prioritize accordingly. How did Kansas City decide to prioritize programs like Open Data KC, KCStat, etc.?

A data-driven approach to government has been a consistent priority of the Mayor and City Manager, in part because of the opportunity to increase efficiency and use dollars more wisely. In implementing our open data and performance management systems, it has also helped that it has been an iterative, evolving process – while we now have four staff dedicated to managing open data as well as weekly performance management meetings and monthly KCStat meetings, we started with only one staff member who was working on a fraction of those items. As the need for additional resources has grown, the organization has prioritized additional incremental resources accordingly.

It is also worth noting that major elements such as the City’s Open Data portal represented a very modest cost from a financial perspective. The bigger investment was non-monetary in nature; the sustained effort to focus the city’s employees and culture on the values of transparency and engagement, as well as to reach outward into the civic community for assistance and advice.

Kansas City uses a combination of open data and quarterly customer satisfaction surveys to help inform its services. What is one example in which this combination of using open data with the customer satisfaction surveys has resulted in a creative citizen-driven initiative or improvement?

Over time, citizen surveys have consistently shown snow removal to be a high priority for improvement for our citizen customers (as is true for many cities). This ongoing emphasis led the city to invest both dollars in GPS technology to track and monitor removal efforts, as well as to focus a lot of effort on designing effective communication messages and tactics. In 2013, these efforts paid off – despite two massive back-to-back snow events (each one representing a higher-than-average snowfall), the citizen survey administered immediately afterward showed a higher level of citizen satisfaction with snow removal than ever before. Data transparency played a role in this effort as well – part of the information rolled out to citizens was a map showing them when their street had last been plowed according to the GPS data.

How has making data more accessible to the public increased citizen engagement?

Creating an open data system has been key in engaging the nascent civic hacking community in Kansas City – for example, the winner of a hackathon last fall was a group that used the city’s 311 data to develop a predictive model of when and where water main breaks would occur. Likewise, the city’s Code for America Brigade is currently focused on developing an application that would use city data to better inform neighborhoods about the issues in their midst. On a broader scale, utilizing data to tell the city’s story allows citizens to grasp the tangible results of budgetary or operational decisions that are made. When across-the-board budget cuts threatened to cut the city’s code enforcement inspection staff in 2014, the department utilized data to demonstrate what the impact would be on the timeliness of inspection. This data was then in turn used by citizens and neighborhoods to advocate against the cuts, which were restored.

Many cities are engaging in open data initiatives. What would be some advice you would give cities interested in making meaningful use of all this data?

Open data is at its core about increasing the transparency of government by providing useful data to citizens. Thoughtful consideration of the type of data that citizens want to see, as well as the frequency and the format, makes a big difference in the value of the open data effort – for example, a collection of annual PDF documents may be part of an “open data” effort, but likely provides a lot less value than data that is auto-updated on a regular basis and in a machine readable format. At the same time, big data can start small – one rich data set is a great starting point.

While opening up the city’s data to citizens is an essential and necessary first step, for the majority of citizens, some form of curation of this data is also important. That is why we have invested in a dashboard system (kcstat.kcmo.org) that helps to visualize and communicate the stories and information within the city’s open data.