The Top 5 Open Data Cities In The U.S.

We’re examining the top five open data cities in the U.S. Find out what the census is based on, and what you should know about open data.

Ted, Founder and Managing Partner at ClearPoint, has over 25 years of experience working with organizations to improve their performance management and strategy execution processes.

The U.S. City Open Data Census is an ongoing survey that measures public access to a number of important municipal data sets in cities across the United States. It began in February 2014 to highlight the cities who are making the greatest effort toward municipal transparency through open data. The site and census are maintained by Code for America, the Sunlight Foundation, the Open Knowledge Foundation, the Code for America Brigade, and the Open Government Data working group.

Because this open data index project is crowdsourced, anyone can add a city or contribute by researching and including a data set from any given city. These submissions are then peer-reviewed by a volunteer team to ensure that they meet the standards of the survey. According to the census FAQ, the U.S. City Open Data Census “seeks to be a benchmarking tool, which people can use to ignite conversations with their government about open government data.”

Right now, there are 109 cities represented. The top five open data cities in the U.S. (as of December 2015) are as follows:

#1: Los Angeles, CA

#2: New York City, NY

#3: San Francisco, CA

#4: Las Vegas, NV

#5: Philadelphia, PA

What The Census Is Based On

Currently, the study is tracking the following data sets:

  • Budget
  • Business Listings
  • Code Enforcement Violations
  • Construction Permits
  • Crime
  • Lobbyist Activity
  • Parcels
  • Procurement Contracts
  • Property Deeds
  • Public Buildings
  • Restaurant Inspections
  • Spending
  • Transit
  • Zoning
  • Web Analytics
  • Service (311) Requests
  • Campaign Finance Contributions
  • Asset Disclosure

(A full description of what is included in each data set can be found here.)

Each data set is examined to determine how available the data is, and whether the data is (among other things):

  • Openly licensed
  • Available in bulk
  • Available online
  • Machine readable
  • Free of cost

Interestingly, three of the top five open data cities are also in the top five largest cities in the U.S. (New York City is first, Los Angeles is second, and Philadelphia is fifth.) It’s possible that these larger cities will always have an advantage because they have more resources and a larger performance initiative team at their disposal.

Open Data Vs. Strategic Data

The Open Data Index defines “open knowledge” as “any content, information or data that people are free to use, reuse and redistribute—without any legal, technological or social restriction.” They stress that “open knowledge is what data becomes when it’s useful, useable and used.” They also explain that the data “must be available as a whole” for it to be considered open.

But is publishing loads of data sheets useful? Is the data published by the cities represented above actually useful to the average citizen, or is it simply too much information? Many of the cities in the census are publishing massive data sets online and touting that these data dumps are transparent. While publishing this data is a step in the right direction, the question of whether it fosters transparency and citizen trust is still up in the air.

We believe transparency is better fostered through a more strategic approach to open data. This includes placing relevant, digestible pieces of information online that describe how a municipal goal is important to the city and how its performance affects the city (and its citizens). This way, citizens can appreciate the numbers in context, see the trends over time, and understand the municipal strategy far easier. In other words, you’re still being transparent, but you’re being strategic about the message you’re putting online.

See Also: Local Government Transparency: What It Is & How To Cultivate It

Keep In Mind

If you’re a city manager or a municipal employee who is wondering how you might be able to emulate the successes of those doing well in the open data arena, there are few things you need to be aware of:

First, you need to put yourself in the shoes of one of your citizens. What data would you want to see? And in what format would you want to see it?

Next, you need to think about your identity as a municipality and determine what makes the most sense for you to share. What is your brand? Olathe, Kansas, for example, is very focused on citizen satisfaction. So when they set out to put their information online, they typically post performance metrics accompanied by the public’s perception of how they’re doing. That’s what is really important to them.

Finally, you need to determine what is manageable for your city based on staff and resources. LouieSTAT of Louisville, Kentucky, has seven employees working on their STAT program, for example. A lot of municipalities only have one person who spends about 75% of their time on open data. So, what is a realistic approach for your organization?  

Community Dashboard

As a manager in a city, you should be thinking continuously about transparency and readability. What story does your data tell about your city—and do your residents understand that story by looking at your data?

The Open Data Census is a step in the right direction for government transparency. But we believe it is possible to foster a community of transparency without dumping loads of data online and asking your citizens to parse through it. If you’re a small or mid-size municipality, you may want to consider creating a Community Dashboard. This online visual guide walks citizens through your strategic measures, and can give your city the competitive edge you’re seeking. Our free ebook below will give you the tools you need to get started.

The Top 5 Open Data Cities In The U.S.