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Highlights from Panel on Civic Trust for NYC Open Data Week

A summary of key points emerging from The GovLab's event on civic trust for New York City Open Data Week

Posted on 29th of March 2023 by Andrew Zahuranec

Highlights from Panel on Civic Trust for NYC Open Data Week
Highlights from Panel on Civic Trust for NYC Open Data Week

Civic trust is vital for people to engage with the institutions and community around them. Yet, there is no consensus on how to establish it or how to measure it. How can open data better enable and facilitate civic trust? To what extent can an organization measure civic trust through open data?

In collaboration with the NYC Civic Engagement Commission, The Governance Lab and the Center for Urban Science + Progress (CUSP) at New York University hosted a special panel discussion on March 14th titled “Open Data & Civic Trust” as part of New York City Open Data Week. The event brought together members of the public, academia, city government, and civil society to discuss what civic trust looked like in New York, what tools it required, and what policy considerations were needed to foster it. 

NYC Open Data Manager Zachary Feder gave a brief introduction to the event. Panel participants included:

  • Stefaan Verhulst, Chief Research and Development Officer, The GovLab;
  • Elena Krumova, Assistant Director of Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences and lecturer at the Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences Program, Columbia University;
  • Maia Woluchem, Technologist and Assistant Professor of Public Service, NYU Wagner;
  • Alli Finn, Senior Researcher and Organizer, Surveillance Resistance Labs;
  • Oscar Romero, Chief Information Officer, NYC Civic Engagement Commission; and
  • Betsy MacLean, NYC Chief Engagement Officer, NYC Office of the Mayor.

Understanding Civic Trust

To start off the conversation, moderator Stefaan Verhulst focused all the participants on defining what civic trust is and the ways that open data might help foster and measure it. 

Speaking in her role as New York’s first chief engagement officer, Betsy MacLean, spoke about how her own bad experiences with government-led community engagement had motivated her to seek better approaches. Noting the ways that bad engagements could leave communities feeling more alienated, less engaged, and distrustful of government, she argued for the vital importance of more coordination so that those responsible for providing services can gather all the data they need, develop meaningful insights from them, and take it back to decision-makers.

“The worst thing you can do is engage someone about their opinion and then not do anything about it,” Betsy argued. “There’s really a data component of making sure that all of that data, that qualitative data we’re collecting from communities, is informing policies and programs.”

Dr. Elena Krumova offered a similar perspective. Speaking from her own perspective as a researcher and someone involved in a community engagement consulting firm, she noted that civic trust had many components—trust in one’s neighbors, trust in government, and trusting data produced within a community.  She noted that data, when made accessible, can allow people to understand an individual’s community but that it should also surface questions about what’s in it in the first place, what is not, and how it was collected. There needed to be engagement around data itself.

Alli Finn and Maia Woluchem of Surveillance Resistance Lab, meanwhile, argued that civic trust was merely a function of justice and equality issues. In an age where corporations and agencies use data to make assessments about people and determine access to services, open data and open tools can be used to address power imbalances. It can be used to understand people’s interactions with the government.

“Open data is one tool to see governance and advocacy changing, but I often wonder whether we can be more expansive about the communities and types of ways we’re engaging around open data,” said Maia.

For Oscar Romero, civic engagement was all about power. He spoke about the Civic Engagement Commission’s mandate to increase civic trust, its work collecting more than 4,000 ideas and managing workshops in eight languages, and creating the infrastructure for participatory processes. Oscar argued that open data was fundamental to its work in that it provides opportunities for tracking and accountability across all levels of government.


Engaging People

Unnamed (7)Elena speaks on the importance of open data for civic trust.

With this baseline, Stefaan then turned to the challenge of getting people motivated about open data. Drawing on experiences from The GovLab’s Data Assembly, which used mini-publics to solicit public input into data reuse for crisis response, Stefaan asked if there were ways New York could better institutionalize data use. He also asked if there were ways data could be opened and demystified in a participatory manner.

In this round of the conversation, Oscar opened the discussion by talking about how participatory budgeting was currently doing this with open data. 

“For all the participatory budgeting sessions that we ran, we collected data around the problems that New Yorkers were facing; strategies of how they wanted those problems to be addressed,” Oscar noted. “It is our job to take what New Yorkers want us to be working on and then break it down to be shareable information that can then be used for all kinds of purposes, whether it is to shape legislation or the policies that different city agencies put together.”

He then noted the need to engage people critically and to push them on why they distrust. By understanding the sources of people’s dissatisfaction, government can learn to operate better. Maia continued on this point by describing some of the challenges that the federal government had with the US Census—noting the hyper-local organizing that happened to address concerns and inform people of what was happening. Alli also echoed the remarks by talking on the need to make sure that data protections and anonymization reflect people’s preferences.

Elena added to these remarks by asking, “How do we use data to engender communities and take action on those issues they think are a problem?”

She argued there were different aspects of trust and that these did not always track together. There was an urgent need to look at innovative models to answer difficult questions about open data use and reuse. Betsy highlighted novel approaches such as NYC Speaks, which sought to survey young people on their attitudes toward policy.


These are just a few of the issues that were focused on in the Open Data & Civic Trust panel. Participants also spoke about their own ideas for innovations, the role of social impact design research, and new ways to answer complex questions. There was also a dedicated hour reserved for discussion and questions and answers from the audience.

We invite you to listen to the full discussion by viewing a recording of the event on our YouTube page here. If this conversation sparked your interest and you have ideas about the ways open data can measure or enable civic trust, don’t hesitate to contact us at [email protected]

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