Chapter 14

Local Scale and Local Data

Today, the town hall meeting conjures visions of televised, invitation-only debates in which candidates for national office respond in scripted paragraphs to the prepared questions of selected constituents. But in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, town hall meetings were a space in which citizens came to debate the issues of the day, and to vote on appropriate action. For Henry David Thoreau (1854), town hall meetings in which each man was afforded a voice on questions as morally significant and politically complex as Massachusetts’ enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act were the “true Congress, and the most respectable one that is ever assembled in the United States.” Thoreau was fundamentally distrustful of the big cities of New York and Boston, where the press, politicians, and special interest groups obscured citizens’ voices.

Of course, Thoreau’s assessment of the town meeting was steeped in romanticism. Non-citizens were largely excluded from the proceedings, and the homogenous population of the rural towns so loved by Thoreau allowed a purity of conscience more difficult to sustain in nearby Boston, in which a complex economy, population density, and diversity made the inclusion of individual residents’ voices more complicated, and policy decisions less tied to moral certitude alone. But still, in the town meetings of his beloved Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau saw the promise of American democracy most fully realized. The ideal of residents contributing directly to the governance of their communities through the town hall meeting is one that persists to this day.

As in the town hall meeting system in which residents co-governed with elected officials, true engagement in the twenty-first century involves not only listening, but also collaboration and action. The full potential of the twenty-first century virtual commons is dependent not just on the voicing of ideas by residents, but on the incorporation of these ideas and concerns into innovative and constructive public policies by cities, and the ability of cities to address difficult issues of access, digital literacy, language barriers, and awareness that often interfere with the ability of the virtual commons to reach and empower all populations.

Such exchanges need not rely on new technologies. Participatory budgeting, in which residents submit proposals for and vote on funding allocations for city-funded projects is one example of a non-technology driven approach to establishing a new civic commons. But new technologies and approaches developed or engaged by local government—including the sensible release and adequate guidance in the use of open data—can offer a path toward developing a new and vibrant public square.

Towards a Twenty-First Century Town Hall

The local level provides an unparalleled space for government to harness the power of community groups, neighborhood associations, other supporting organizations, and residents themselves to convene citizens, share knowledge, and identify and develop better ways of responding to community needs. Close proximity and the potential for developing personal relationships allow organizing to have a broader impact. Local government has the ability to serve and respond to the needs of diverse populations through engaging residents and community groups directly in a way that is not possible at the state or federal level.

In fact, innovation at the local level of government looks very different than innovation pursued by federal agencies. With more direct contact with the public than their colleagues in Washington, local government innovation can be more directly responsive to an existing community need as articulated by community groups and ordinary citizens. The smaller scale of local government means that soliciting and incorporating feedback directly from the community is much more feasible. Innovation at the local level can change the relationship between residents and their government, rather than focusing on the transactional elements of government alone.

Service delivery is at the heart of most residents’ engagement with municipal government, regardless of city size. Without the services offered by cities—as varied as schools, libraries, garbage pickup, public safety, and public transit—many residents would be in tough shape. Before ten o’clock in the morning, the average person might wake up, take his city-owned trash can to the curb for pickup, wave to the street cleaner funded by city coffers, and return his books to the city-supported library before hopping on a bus whose route has been set by city planners. His level of engagement with local services is far more tangible, personal, and expansive than his everyday experience of state or federal services.

Because of this immediate relevance of municipal services to the average citizen’s life, the local level is a promising point of entry into establishing a modern day public sphere.

From Data to Engagement

Any conversation about relationships between government and citizens at the local level necessitates a consideration of data. Our cities are prolific generators of data that directly impacts our daily lives—everything from train schedules to trash pickup days. They’re also collectors of data, like enrollment in social services or parking meter usage. Local community groups also often serve as stewards and curators of important data about their own communities. Both city- and community-generated data can be powerful fuel for meaningful civic dialogue and action.

For example, in the Tenderloin, a low-income and predominantly minority neighborhood in San Francisco, the City failed to respond to noise complaints because there were no data to support the claim that the noise level was beyond an acceptable limit. So, the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA), a non-profit digital arts and technology organization located in the Tenderloin, joined with residents and local civic hackers, to place noise sensors around the district to collect data on noise levels throughout the day (see Armed with data from the noise sensors, GAFFTA was able to prove that the noise levels in the Tenderloin exceeded the allowable levels because, for example, most of the city’s fire and emergency vehicles used streets in the Tenderloin to travel across town, and the City permitted more emergency construction permits that allowed crews to begin and end loud construction work late in the day.

This story illustrates how community groups and other nonprofits can use data to improve the lives of those living and working around them. Residents, community groups, non-profit organizations, and businesses already play important roles in local governance as knowledge disseminators, identifiers of community needs, and as advocates for the implementation of governmental policies and programs—and data can be a tool to further this engagement. Empowered with the data proving that noise levels were above those acceptable in other parts of San Francisco, GAFFTA and Tenderloin residents were able to make a case for rerouting emergency vehicles and reducing construction in the noise polluted district.

When civic data held by the government is made open for diverse populations to use and remix, it expands the possibilities for data to facilitate civic engagement and enable citizens to collaborate with their city to co-create better public services. Open data has the potential to empower citizens to identify community needs, propose and develop new approaches, and engage new constituencies.

This is exemplified by a number of cities that publish crime data and the neighborhood groups that emerge to deter crime in the city. Equipped with data, the neighborhood groups are better able to identify trends in crime and take proactive measure to prevent crime. In this way, citizens’ use of datasets—such as transportation and crime—have the potential to reshape the way that local governments deploy public safety or public transit services, making them more efficient and equitable systems. When approached in the right way, these open datasets can serve as catalysts for meaningful exchange about community priorities—in some ways a modern-day public square for multiple constituencies.

But to realize the full potential requires more than simply declaring a dataset open and putting a PDF version on a website. First of all, the data must be not only open and available, but also in a useful (and preferably machine-readable) format. When civic data is conducive to being repurposed and interpreted by government and citizens, new value and meaning can be unlocked. For example, a list of crime reports in an Excel format is not that helpful for a parent trying to understand whether the route her child takes to school every day is safe. But when that list of crime incidents is mapped, the information becomes much more consumable. The data become even more useful when the parent can input his child’s route to school and a system displays only the crimes reported within a five-block radius of that route. This shows the power of data to improve citizens’ lives when those data are made accessible to the average citizen.

It can also be made more powerful when multiple datasets are used to tell a more comprehensive story. For example, in charting the location of abandoned vehicles, it is possible to tell a larger story about crime. In neighborhoods where more vehicles are abandoned, more crime generally occurs, and understanding the correlation between the two allows local governments to take crime prevention measures in areas where vehicles are being dumped, providing a better way of assessing community need than simply responding to the loudest voices.

Standardization can help scale the impact of open civic data to millions of people when government and private companies partner to create a consistent way of formatting data and making it available to the public. In 2005, Google and Portland’s Tri-Met transit agency made it possible to plan a trip in Google using public transportation, and then published their standard specification. Called the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), this created a standard way of presenting transit information from any transit agency, like fares and schedules, which could be used by Google’s Transit Trip planner. This standard allowed millions of people in cities throughout the world to plan their public transportation trips more effectively. This seemingly small action changed the public’s expectation for transit planning and transit data sharing.

The Challenge of Inclusive Engagement

Open data that powers inclusive citizen engagement requires a level of co-governance that goes beyond simply publishing data for transparency’s sake. This next step from transparency to engagement is not always easy, but promising examples show that when done right, the impact can be significant.

For instance, an app developed by Sam Ramon’s Fire Department is used to leverage bystander performance and active citizenship to improve cardiac arrest survival rates. The City makes 911 emergency call information publicly available via the app, PulsePoint, in which residents trained in CPR are alerted if a person in a location near to them has gone into cardiac arrest. The tool goes beyond the mere presentation of data by promoting “active citizenship” so that residents are supporting their neighbors and public safety agencies. PulsePoint demonstrates the potential to move beyond openness to forming the cornerstone of a new public square in which government, citizens, and other groups work together to improve their communities.

In order for open data to fulfill the mission of inclusivity, open data platforms must speak to multiple publics. By making data more accessible to those without technological know-how, open data can democratize the conversation leading to a better understanding of community needs and resulting in more responsive government. Ordinary citizens can serve as important sources of data and can help to analyze those data if information is presented in understandable ways. Coupling the release of open data with digital literacy training and increased government-supported access to internet for underserved populations can make open data more inclusive. Putting open data in service to the public’s priorities and interests can also assist in this process.

An obstacle is that many cities still don’t see pursuing an open data policy and developing accompanying resources to make those data meaningful as within their reach. This is more than just a perception problem. San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago grab headlines when it comes to technological innovation, but most cities do not have the resources of these major urban areas. There are fewer than three hundred cities in the United States with populations of 100,000 or more, yet there are over 7,500 municipalities with populations above 2,500 nationwide (International City/County Management Association, 2012). The vast majority of the nation’s cities have populations of 25,000 or fewer residents. And over 3,500 cities have council-manager systems of governance, rather than the strong mayor systems predominant in the country’s largest cities.

The size and form of government have implications for the resources available and the method through which change happens in local government. According to one recent survey, while seventy-nine percent of cities of populations of 300,000 or more have open data portals, just thirty-six percent of cities with populations under 50,000 do (see Hillenbrand, 2013). And an approach in which a charismatic mayor green-lights civic technology projects, as has been the pattern in Boston and Philadelphia, is not open to most locales where a council-manager system predominates.

With budget shortfalls and increasing demands for service, most local government employees have other priorities besides open data. In a recent survey of city managers and county administrators in California, thirty-five percent of respondents identified a service delivery project as the most important new approach instituted by their locale in the last five years (Burstein, 2013). Twenty-eight percent of cited projects involved some element of regional collaboration. Projects that fell into two areas that commentators often hail as the holy grail of local government innovation—civic engagement and e-government—each accounted for only eleven percent of responses. While elements of both of these areas were certainly features of other kinds of projects, civic engagement and e-government were not the end goals. Instead, improving service delivery to residents was the primary objective. This shows the deep disconnect between the potential of open data and perceptions and abilities to create sound open data policies and practices in city governments across the country.

With the advent of open source and low cost tools that can help streamline the process of opening up data, and the increasingly open attitudes towards collaborative approaches like city-sponsored hackathons, it’s more feasible for even small cities to pursue open data policies. But in order for open data to emerge as a powerful civic commons in which diverse residents are engaged and involved in the process of collaborative co-governance in cities throughout the nation, open data advocates need to do a better job of connecting the open data movement with the service delivery goals at the forefront of the minds of most city administrators. We need better ways of illustrating the value of open data to residents, and we need better ways of talking about open data as a strategy for supporting existing policy goals.

Cities also need more resources. The open data community of hackers, businesses, non-profits, community groups, residents, philanthropic foundations, and local government employees who have implemented open data initiatives elsewhere need to play a bigger role in developing resources for smaller, less well resourced communities. We can make valuable contributions—including building and maintaining open source civic software—to help transform the meaning of civic innovation beyond service delivery and toward collaborative, co-governance.

Open data has the ability to reshape the public’s relationship with government, reinvigorating the long dormant space of the public square in the increasingly digitized but equally fragmented cityscape of the twenty-first century. Open data is a piece of a larger movement toward civic innovation capitalizing on the advantages of a smaller scale that holds enormous promise for our nation’s cities and for twenty-first century democracy. But that will only occur if the open data community moves forward with sensitivity and wisdom to the realities of our cities’ ecosystems and needs.

About the Authors

Alissa Black directs the New America Foundation’s California Civic Innovation Project. Based in the Bay area, Ms. Black is exploring the use of innovative technologies, policies, and practices that engage disadvantaged communities in public decision-making throughout California. Prior to joining New America, Ms. Black was the Government Relations Director at Code for America, a non-profit organization that helps governments work better through the use of technology and new practices. She also has extensive experience as a leader in local government, having worked in the New York City Mayor’s Office and the City of San Francisco’s Emerging Technologies team, where she led the development and deployment of Open311, the leading national standard for citizen reporting.

Rachel Burstein is a research associate at the California Civic Innovation Project at the New America Foundation.


Burstein, Rachel (2013). The Case for Strengthening Personal Networks in California Local Government: Understanding local government innovation and how it spreads. Retrieved from Hillenbrand, Katherine (2013). From Hieroglyphs to Hadoop: The Development of Civic Data. Retrieved from International City/County Management Association (2012). Form of Government Statistics - Cities (2012). Retrieved from Thoreau, Henry David (1854). Slavery in Massachusetts. Retrieved from

Alissa Black
Rachel Burstein