Try 1 month for 99¢
Mayor Paul Soglin

Mayor Paul Soglin announced in 2016 that Madison was joining the What Works Cities partnership.

Two years have passed since Mayor Paul Soglin announced that Madison would join a national initiative to improve government through better use of data. Today, according to city officials, that decision has yielded a lot of change.

Since joining the Bloomberg Philanthropies-backed What Works Cities initiative in 2016, the city has partnered with national civic technology groups on an ambitious plan to overhaul how it uses data internally, and in how it disseminates data to the public. The shift has involved a revamp of the city’s open data portal, new visualization and mapping tools, a survey of municipal data users and an experiment in incorporating data into procurement processes.

The city has also embarked on an ambitious project to use a new data-informed framework for achieving the city’s broader goals on topics from sustainability to equity, with implementation slated for 2019.

“This year was a lot of legwork to get individuals who will be part of the next phase of this process prepared for what’s to come,” said Kara Kratowicz, the city’s data projects coordinator.

The efforts have been spearheaded by a network of city staff under the oversight of the mayor, including officials in the Finance Department like Kratowicz and budget and program evaluation manager Laura Larsen, and others involved in the city’s Performance Excellence initiative. According Larsen, the hope is to eventually become certified by What Works Cities for “well-managed data-driven local government.”

“Tremendous progress has been made,” said Larsen. “Still, we have a lot of work to do.”

A new approach to open data

The city has always generated and collected a large volume of data on everything from bus schedules to city property assessments. Larsen said that a recent inventory across all departments found 836 discrete datasets.

However, Larsen said that there’s a lack of standardization or centralized focus for how city departments manage that data. In addition, the city has received criticism for its public-facing data efforts.

In 2012, Madison passed an open data ordinance and launched a portal featuring about 136 datasets. But many in the community expressed dissatisfaction with the the platform, and a city-backed 2017 report found that the portal had largely gone unused. When Milwaukee launched its own data portal, proponents pointed to Madison as an example of how not to approach open data.

Erik Paulson, a programmer and organizer of the city’s civic hacking community, said that hackers weren’t impressed with the quality and usability of the datasets, as well as with how frequently they were updated.

“The city didn’t use the open data themselves, so they didn’t realize it wasn’t very good from a data quality perspective,” he said.

Alnisa Allgood, the founder of the Collaborative for Good and a local advocate for data-informed social change, also argued that it was wrong-headed to focus on civic hackers instead of a broader community.

“They were hoping the tech community would help them create sense out of the data, and help them make what they wanted,” she said.

Soglin announced the What Works Cities commitment in 2016 in the hopes of better harnessing data to achieve its goals improving racial equity. Through that initiative, Larsen said Madison connected with resources like the Sunlight Foundation.

“All of these think tanks have already piloted all these approaches, and things that cities can implement to improve services and solve problems,” said Larsen.

One way the city says it’s changing its tune with open data involves “tactical data engagement.” The idea, pioneered by Sunlight, is to use an intentional approach revolving around specific goals and direct engagement, rather than simply posting a spreadsheet to a website, said Larsen.

“It challenges us as a city staff to go as step beyond, to say, how can we present this in a way that stakeholders can interact with it?” said Larsen.

An example of tactical data engagement, said Kratowicz, was a 2018 pilot program to incorporate data into grant applications, something that could become part of the city’s procurement protocols. As part of the process for applying for a Safe and Thriving Communities Grant through the Community Development Division, northside Madison community groups were encouraged to use a “data toolkit” that included maps and numbers from the city, state and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Applied Population Laboratory on educational outcomes, crime and resident well-being in the area.

“The most common thing we heard is people want packaged information,” Kratowicz said. “We can't just assume that putting up a raw dataset on an open data portal, or a shape file related to a map, is really going to help someone wanting to come to a community meeting better informed about an issue.”

Kratowicz said the effort reflected the city’s acknowledgment of a broad range of people who use open data. The 2017 report compiled a list of six “user personas” beyond civic hackers that might engage with city data, from community activists to nonprofits.

Algood and Paulsen were among those interviewed for the report. Allgood said she appreciated the opportunity to weigh in, as well as the grant application pilot program. She said more community organizations could benefit from engaging with data.

“It’s going in the right direction in terms of reaching out to the community, giving communities a reason to use data,” said Allgood. “When a grant that you need is dependent on it, then there’s a viable force to push you into using data better.”

Another revamped aspect of the city's open data efforts is its online portal: A new version of the site launched about a year ago with new mapping and data visualization features. The new portal is powered by a software called ArcGIS, an industry standard for mapping and geospatial data.

"The vast majority of the city's datasets are geospatial," explained Larsen. "The functionality wasn't there in the old system, with regard to mapping."

Working toward results

When it comes to internal city performance, the city is also on the cusp of embracing what it’s calling “Results Madison” — a new citywide data-driven action plan for working toward goals identified in the city’s new Comprehensive Plan.

The idea, said Larsen, will be to identify goals at a high level, establish the important measure or indicators for those goals, to identify all city departments that deliver relevant services, and to figure out goals pertaining to those services that could help drive change.

“Everything is oriented around this bigger picture of, what are the changes we’re trying to drive for our residents?” she said.

In 2018, Kratowicz and Larsen said they met with staff in all city departments to lay the groundwork for the new action plan.

“It's a big culture shift,” said Larsen. “It's hard to get agencies to break out of, you know, here's my lane.”

Some data and tech community leaders had positive things to say about the city's work, although they do have their share of concerns and reservations.

Paulson said that he hopes that the city stays committed to incorporating data into its decisionmaking, even if data doesn’t become a panacea for Madison’s problems.

“If we use open data to work toward youth violence reduction, and there’s no youth violence reduction, do we give up on data?” he said.

He added that while he hasn’t spent a lot of time on the city’s recently revamped open data portal, there are aspects that he appreciates, such as formatting datasets in a way that are more machine-readable. He also thinks the new platform may be inferior to the old system for non-spatial data, and that it seems less friendly for developers when it comes to filtering and linking datasets.

“It’s more complicated, I’ll say that about the new one. It’s more powerful, but it’s a littler more tricky to get started with,” he said. “To really get it going from a developer standpoint, there needs to be some training or outreach.”

Allgood said that connecting community organizations with municipal data, especially in tandem with data collected at a state or federal level, can greatly improve efforts to drive social change.

“The combination of those types of data could really transform and create better stories that guide people, and give people more focal points, an ability to do better work,” she said.

She also identified potential pitfalls. She hopes the city remains committed to having open data remain truly open, instead of behind a paywall. She also said there’s always risk of political corruption influencing what kind of data gets shared, or not shared, with the public.

She also warned against the misinterpretation of data, or not recognizing its limitations.

“You want to be informed by the data, but you also want to make these decisions when data represents things that hold the wrong values,” she said. "Data may say black people create more crime ... but it's just that black people get prosecuted way more frequently."

Meanwhile, the city says it’s working on other goals related to open data and performance management. In 2019, Larsen said they hope to establish a routine practice of inventorying all datasets across the city, and posting more of them on the data portal. She also said the city hopes to begin work on a “data warehouse” — in other words, a central hub that would connect and automate updates and insights from datasets across the city.

Larsen said that the city will soon submit its second application to become What Works Cities-certified, in the hopes to join nine other cities recognized for their data-driven governance.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.