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Rethinking participation in local data and technology
Data and technology have become the tools local governments use to govern, but most people don't have a say in how those systems are run. Here's why it matters.
Hi 🌷 Welcome to my newsletter.
Hopefully if you’re reading this, you signed up for Civic Source to hear more about how local governments use data and technology to shape communities. From building bike lanes to being the front line for climate crisis response, local governments have an outsized influence on peoples’ experiences of day-to-day life. And increasingly, the way they wield that influence is through the use of data and technology.
But for most people, local government influence is so broad and deep-reaching that it escapes our understanding. Without understanding how local governments use data and technology, it’s harder for residents of cities, towns, and rural communities to have an active say in how technologies are used over time, and in turn, how their communities change.
Public technology and data are political. But in order to shape their politics, we have to build a stronger collective understanding of what’s not working.
I’ve worked with local governments since I was an undergraduate researcher at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government in college. I’ve had a front row seat to how the sausage is made, and while the details can be frustrating, awe-inspiring, and sometimes gruesome, I want to share what I’ve learned. In this newsletter, I’ll cover some of the common questions that come up in my work.
Some questions I hear often:
Why don’t city departments talk to one another?
How can people influence city spending?
Why are there so many performance dashboards?
What protections for personal data do cities actually have?
(Email me or leave a comment with other q’s you want to see covered)
I’ll also share stories about how local governments are using data and technology to affect issues like flooding resilience, housing development, delivery of human services, or food distribution. But before I get to the core of those questions, I want to start at the very beginning. I want to talk about why it matters that we create better ways of knowing what local governments are doing in the first place.
The first time I walked into a city hall, I was probably 12 years old, visiting my aunt who worked for the Department of Parks and Recreation at the City of Houston throughout my childhood. It’s the place she has worked the longest since coming to the US from Colombia with my mom. When I went to visit her, she said, “We can just walk through here,” and skipped the sign-in sheet at the front desk as she flashed her badge. I remember being surprised about how casual security was, wondering if it was always possible for people to just walk in (I’ve since learned, for the most part, it is).
There’s a certain open quality about city halls that differs from the stuffy guardedness of federal buildings. Over time I’ve come to appreciate that vibe, proliferating in city halls across the country. It feels right that city halls should feel like open spaces; that they should feel like they’re ours.
It is possible that people aren’t banging down the door to get into local governments. Local governments have been in our public blindspot for a few decades. As of 2014, participation in local governing was abysmally low. But COVID-19 and the George Floyd uprisings have brought a renewed public focus to what local governments are spending on and doing.
Truth be told, I’m riding the coattails of that trend, trying to get information into the hands of organizers and community workers who can change public technology and data systems for the better. But even as interest in local government has improved, the channels for people to participate in local governing haven’t.
As of a few months ago in Houston, where I live and work, people had to leave a voicemail on a City answering machine with their name and phone number with no form of confirmation in order to give a public comment during virtual budget hearings. The City has struggled to maintain an open data program, so the County’s recent COVID-19 dashboards have been the strongest transparency efforts the region has seen in a few years. This matters because these public platforms have increasingly become the foundations of how we make decisions about our health and safety. They’ve become the main lifeline for people relying on rental assistance and eviction protections to get through the year. And they’ve become primary sources of information for grassroots organizers as they make the case to governments that we can build better futures free of policing and incarceration.
Data and technology systems have become the raw material that make up the relations between the governing and the governed.
Governments have begun to acknowledge the importance of investing in those relations. For example, hiring tech companies that can conduct thorough user-centered design research and build accessible platforms for assisting with the delivery of housing assistance or social benefits. These platforms require maintenance by firms with strong civic values, at the very least. At best, they have to be built with empathy, with a commitment to public benefit, and an open understanding of outcomes, so that governing institutions and residents can have consistent and trustworthy two-way relations.
When local governments don’t update their public-facing technologies to enable stronger on-going participation, they have to rely on soliciting public feedback which can be a grab bag of sometimes useful, sometimes cherry-picked inputs from members of local communities. The foundations of participatory and open government don’t fit within the space of a resident feedback survey or a 30-minute interview.
When local governments seek feedback instead of participation, they tend not to get the answers they want from communities about data and tech projects. What they get is, at worst, confusion or frustration with the systems as they are, and at best, curiosity about what could be done for the future. But peoples’ curiosity about public data and technology tends to go undernourished.
Through my work, I’ve spent probably hundreds of hours conducting or reviewing interviews with community members and representatives about the effect of public data and technology projects on their lives. I’ve spoken to first responders in Norfolk, Virginia about the quality of city data on flooding and weather forecasting, and to Native-owned affordable housing developers in Glendale, Arizona about the availability of permitting data that allows them to plan and build housing for local tribal communities.
What I’ve learned is that people do want to know how data is going to be used in ways that affect them. They do want data that will help them do their jobs better, they do want to know whether their personal data is safe, and they want to understand whether local governments are using technologies that will make their lives better.
While many local governments have taken huge steps toward better legislative and financial transparency, they still struggle to provide operational transparency. In other words, people can see what local governments regulate or spend on, but they still can’t see what local governments are actually doing. Involving residents in the everyday work of doing, of governing, is the first step toward enabling a culture of openness in local government. It’s the first step toward building what I end up calling “connective tissue.”
The connective tissue that improves trust between residents and the institutions that represent them is like the soil that allows new, collective ideas to grow.
People don't know enough about the multitudes of data and tech systems that keep the lights on in cities. As a result, there's a gap in public engagement around the design and governance of those systems. We need more participation, more theories about what kind of innovation should happen in our communities. I’m inspired by a quote from Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: “We need stories (and theories) that are just big enough to gather up the complexities and keep the edges open and greedy for surprising new and old connections.”
I hope readers of this newsletter will contribute their own theories and stories to build out new bodies of shared knowledge. I’m a long-time lover of cities, and my work on data and technology in cities has shown me that we can move through these systems together to imagine better, more just futures in our communities. I hope that the information I’m able to share here will help you plant a seed in the soil, a kernel for new ideas to grow.
Thanks for reading, see you next time 💖
How to Map Nothing: Geographies of Suspension - Lecture by Shannon Mattern on the ways in which data captures or fails to capture situated knowledge about places and people.
Inhabiting the Negative Space - Commencement speech by Jenny Odell for the Harvard Graduate School of Design on the personal practice that informs modes of thinking that take communities and their realities into account.
“If we want to create humane, pluralistic futures, we need to nurture a different kind of curiosity.” - An interview with friend and brilliant change designer/teacher/practitioner Nicole Anand on the political potential of participatory design.
Beyond Open Data Policy - Some of my earlier thinking on moving toward more participatory open government from when I started leading the Sunlight Foundation’s Open Cities team.
The City Halls That Defy Stereotypes about Mundane Local Government - Fun exploration of a new book, City Hall, which investigates the architecture of 15 unique city halls, covered by Linda Poon at CityLab.