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Summer of Open Data

Panel #7

The Impact of COVID-19 on States, Localities, and Business

Posted on 2nd of September 2020 by Andrew Zahuranec

Panel #7
Panel #7

Clockwise from the top left: Stefaan Verhulst (The GovLab); Rudi Borrmann (Open Government Partnership); Kara Selke (StreetLight Data); and Tyler Kleykamp (State Chief Data Officers Network)

The Summer of Open Data is a three-month project spearheaded by the Open Data Policy Lab (an initiative of The GovLab with support from Microsoft) in partnership with the Digital Trade & Data Governance Hub, Open Data Institute, the Open Data Charter, and BrightHive. Each week, we speak with data experts in local and regional governments, national statistical agencies, international bodies, and private companies to advance our understanding of how to establish a vision of open data focused on collaboration, responsibility, and purpose.

The Panel

Moderated by The GovLab’s Co-Founder and Chief Research and Development Officer Stefaan Verhulst, the cross-cutting panel featured:

  • Rudi Borrmann, Open Government Partnership Lead of OGP Local;
  • Tyler Kleykamp, State Chief Data Officers Network Director; and
  • Kara Selke, StreetLight Data Vice President of Commercial Development and Privacy.

In a 45-minute conversation, Stefaan and the panelists spoke on how the COVID-19 pandemic had affected US states, cities around the world, and private business and how open data practitioners might learn from these experiences to develop better resources in the future.

The full conversation, as well as a brief overview of highlights, is below:


The Focus on States and the Importance of Subnational Release of Open Data during COVID-19

As discussed in several previous panels, the coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating toll. In the United States, its destruction is especially stark. There are over 5.8 million confirmed cases and over 32,000 deaths. In places like New York, unemployment has risen to 20.4 percent and over a third of small businesses are likely to close.

This monstrous cost puts enormous strain on local and state governments. Faced with declining resources and constrained budgets, policymakers have been tasked with finding innovative solutions to the many consequences of COVID-19. As such, the conversation opened with a discussion of the ways in which US states were using open data innovatively to address these issues.

“The COVID pandemic has really shined a light on state-level data and generated some fairly significant interest that I think wasn’t there back in January or even previously” said Tyler Kleykamp, noting open data’s traditional focus on national and city-level authorities.

Though this renewed interest had led to some improvements — with many states pursuing data-driven partnerships and providing additional, more granular datasets about public health or the economy — Kleykamp emphasized this progress was uneven.

“During the pandemic, I think we’re seeing regression in some states where they lead with these dashboards with case statistics but then aren’t opening up the data that powers those dashboards. And in some instances, when they were open, [the states] make them less open.”

He also stressed the need for states to think critically about the audience of their open data efforts post-pandemic so they could see a meaningful pay-off from their work. Now is the time for states to think about improving feedback loops.

The International Experience of Open Data at the Subnational level

These comments resonated with Rudi Borrmann. In his work with cities and towns internationally, COVID-19 had sparked renewed interest in data and its capacity to inform decision-making.

“We are seeing localities without any sort of data infrastructure thinking and looking into data more than ever. They need [data] to understand transportation issues [and] economic issues.”

While this energy was important, Borrmann stressed the need for data users to do more than just publish data. They also needed to develop systems for others to use and discuss the data. Consequently, the Open Government Partnership has focused on helping cities internationally develop these assets.

“I think it’s important to […] make sure you have in place the infrastructure for citizens to be able to ask questions and request very basic things from the government,” said Rudi Borrmann. “You cannot start building open data without having those basic concepts […] especially in the Third Wave of Open Data.”

Beyond just using viewing it as a tool for transparency, governments needed to incorporate data and open data into an overall strategy targeted at their priorities. Partnerships and new approaches to data reuse, such as data collaboration, could be used to help institutions capture and realize this value for themselves and their citizens.

Lessons from the Private Sector

Kara Selke focused on the value of partnerships and their capacity to create public value through data reuse.

Speaking of her personal experiences as Vice President of Commercial Development & Privacy for StreetLight Data, Kara noted the value that companies could provide to efforts to address ongoing public challenges.

For instance, Kara noted her company’s own work on pandemic response. After several conservations with its partner Cuebiq, a location intelligence firm, StreetLight Data developed a free VMT monitor, which tracks the number of vehicle miles travelled when looking at a single county in the contiguous United States.

This resource has proven useful, not just in providing a proxy for economic and social activity but also in helping researchers better understand the relationship between mobility and the spread of COVID-19.

“It helps offer perspective at a time when, for transportation, you can’t go and measure traffic. You cannot send people out to the streets to do that manually.”

This example of a private-sector company supporting research for the public good led Stefaan to ask about Kara Selke’s role as a data steward, a responsible data leader from the private sector seeking new ways to create value through cross-sector data collaboration. Stefaan asked how Kara viewed her role and the skillsets necessary to open an organization’s datasets for the public good.

“I don’t view myself as the only data steward in my organization and I think that’s very important for the public and private sector,” said Kara. “You need to make sure you have multiple touchpoints and multiple data stewards throughout the organization so, for example, we have a data partnerships person who is the eyes and ears of data stewardship and other data sources that are available. We also have someone who is responsible for our academic research program.”

“It’s not one-size-fits-all and we need multiple data stewards across organizations.”

Tyler echoed these points, noting state governments often had a chief data officer role for the entire state and individual data officers for each department or agency.

Final Remarks

After a brief discussion on building skills within government and fostering project sustainability, Stefaan gave the panelists a moment to reflect on what they considered the biggest barrier for the Third Wave of Open Data.

For Tyler, the problem was fundamentally an issue of capacity at the sub-national level. He argued, “Chief data officers are often just one person in city government trying to open data, share data, and do all sorts of things. Some are lucky enough to have three or four people, but, as [they] get into those individual agencies, [they] just lack the capacity to do [open data] in a very thoughtful manner.”

Rudi Borrmann agreed with this sentiment. “Capacity building inside the government, that’s a conversation we are seeing today accelerated by COVID […] The future is here but [the skills and resources] aren’t evenly distributed.”

Kara Selke, meanwhile, emphasized the need for governments to pursue a more mission-driven approach to data to serve the needs of its citizens.

“We need a use-case approach […] otherwise we are just swimming in the mess of all this. No matter how well we as private-sector companies or individuals organize silos, the only way that data can be useful is if we use it to solve real-world problems.”

Next Panel

The Summer of Open Data will continue these conversations in the weeks and months to come. As indicated in our schedule, the next panel will bring together:

  • Christian Troncoso, BSA | The Software Alliance Senior Director of Policy;
  • Zachary FederNew York City Open Data Program Manager; and
  • Natalia DomagalaUnited Kingdom Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Head of Data Ethics Policy and Open Government.

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