Opening the Data Vault

How Grand Rapids is sharing information to boost transparency and solve city problems
July 2, 2019 AT 11:00 AM
Grand Rapids is the top performer of the data-driven element in the 2019 Equipt to Innovate survey. Shutterstock
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.
Data-Driven Race-Informed Resident-Involved

A growing number of cities have bought into the idea of open data; the attempt to make great quantities of the information they gather available to the citizenry at large, businesses, civic leaders, advocacy groups and so on.

Some of the first cities to make that kind of effort, according to the Sunlight Foundation, did so toward the end of the last decade; Portland, Oregon, Memphis, and San Francisco all developed policies to support open data in 2009. Since then the number of open data cities has been growing steadily and rapidly.

The most recent Equipt to Innovate survey shows that 64 percent of the cities surveyed indicated they had codified open data policies in 2019, up from 53 percent in 2017. But that only tells part of the story. Most departments make less than half of their data available on their online portals – likely the most straightforward way of reaching a large pool of interested parties.

What are the benefits of breaking down silos and sharing data to as wide an audience as possible? For one thing, it allows for easier collaboration among interested parties to solve widespread problems. It also provides the kind of transparency necessary to hold a city truly accountable to taxpayers; if they don’t know what they’re getting for their tax dollars, it’s difficult for them to evaluate the success of the current and past administrations.

Further, it can help departments benchmark against one another. When they are engaged in similar activities, it can be hugely useful to have easy access to data available from other departments in order to find models that can be used for self-improvement. It has also opened the door for private sector firms to develop useful apps based on government data.

The Equipt to Innovate survey singled out high performers in their use of data generally; open data being one of the criteria considered. This group included Chicago; Corona, Calif.; Louisville; Riverside, Calif.; and San Diego. The one city singled out as the top performer was Grand Rapids, Mich., a city with about 200,000 residents about 30 miles from Lake Michigan.

Here’s the Grand Rapids story:

For many years, the city believed in data and had gathered a great deal of information. But although it was a data-rich place, “the leaders in Grand Rapids weren’t using that data much, nor were they making it available to everyone,” says Becky Jo Glover, chief customer service and innovation officer in Grand Rapids.

Though it was a team effort, when Glover began to work for Grand Rapids about six years ago, she took on the mission of giving keys to the city’s data vault to as many people as possible, both inside and outside of government.

She began her effort by bringing in eight departments to use the city’s data in a far more accessible way. Part of the key to that was making more data available in a geospatial format that helped departments visualize their data in an intuitive way, rather than trying to make sense out of long lists of numbers and conglomerations of information. Four of them went so far as to use those visualizations in their budget processes.

Then, in 2017, Bloomberg’s What Works Cities project stepped in with council that helped get the vast majority of the 40 Grand Rapids departments to make their data widely available. So far about 155 data sets are accessible; by the end of the year the hope is to add yet another 100. All of this information is on the city’s open data portal. The city has a very deliberate, intentional process for making as much data as possible available on the portal, as long as the sharing of the data is not prohibited by law. 

One of the efforts that has been eased by the wide availability of information in Grand Rapids has been the capacity of mathematical modeling to measure how economic development has affected the displacement of people of color in gentrifying neighborhoods

In addition, the city’s data on social determinants of health has been used to determine policy related to lead abatement. The open data portal helps the city work with external organizations that are developing apps and it is beginning to use “civic hack nights,” in which community members gather and experiment with a variety of technological solutions to solve city problems.

As the quantity of data on the portal grows, it’s becoming increasingly important to help train interested parties, and that’s exactly what Grand Rapids is doing.

“We have to go out and show people how to use our open data,” says Glover.


Editor’s note: This concludes Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene’s monthly contributions to the Equipt project, a joint initiative of Governing and Living Cities. Richard and Katherine continue to write about management issues in the states and localities for governing on governing.com. You can follow the ongoing work of Living Cities on governing.com/cityacccelerator.