Ideas Worth Sharing: Using Open Data to Engage the Community

Posted on November 9, 2016

By Eric Reese, Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University

One of the core services for nearly all local governments is public safety. With several recent high profile incidents involving police use of force and violence targeting law enforcement, many public safety officials in the United States are grappling with how to engage the public. At the same time, governments across the United States have more data than ever and are opening this data to the public. In areas like transportation, health, and finance, governments are opening their data for use and scrutiny by the public.

Combining these issues, using open data to engage the public in a conversation around public safety is one way to transform current practice that all local governments should consider. Openness about data can serve as a bridge to discussing practice, building trust, and improving services with communities. The White House initially took the lead in facilitating these conversations through its Police Data Initiative. This initiative sought to create pathways to get law enforcement agencies around the country to open their data to the public. However, the rubber meets the road at the local level. And one city, the City of Indianapolis, provides a great example for others to follow of how to use data to be transparent, engage the public, and take action to make communities better.

capture1Indianapolis is using a variety of techniques to engage the public around data. First, Indianapolis has an open data portal (as many cities do) in which it provides access to government data. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett has also championed several other transparency initiatives as a part of his administration. However, Indianapolis wanted to take it to the next level when engaging the public around public safety.

To do this, Indianapolis took two major steps.

  • The city partnered with local Code for America brigade to create Project Comport, which focused on displaying information related to officer complaints and use of force. By partnering with a group of community volunteers, the city was able to create a useful summary that displayed internal data and also reflected community concerns around what data to focus on.
  • The police department hosted (and still hosts) monthly data meetings to discuss police data with community members. The city went beyond making the data available and used it to talk with the public about what policing looks like in Indianapolis. Summaries of those meetings are also available and posted to a variety of community forums to get the information to a wider group of people.

Indianapolis also took other steps to improve its policing, including creating a regional data center, connecting police with nonprofit service providers, and training officers to identify mental health issues. The city’s goal with these initiatives centered around build trust with the community and other cities are already repeating their example. Minneapolis just launched its own portal for finding information on policing actions and the Police Data Initiative continues to add members.

Overall, building trust helps improve all the outcomes that local governments and residents desire for their communities. As show in Indianapolis, open data can be used to meet a variety of goals, but building trust with the community is one huge benefit that all governments can get behind.

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