Beyond Open Data Portals: How Cities are Building Stronger Futures by Harnessing Data

It’s 2017, and many cities are now opening their data to the public. Though residents now have access to a lot of (often complicated) data, few know how to interpret it. City leaders are starting to realize that opening data is simply not enough—in order to increase resident satisfaction and transparency around city performance, they must harness this data, using it in their everyday communications with residents and stakeholders.

So what are some of the benefits of harnessing city data? To answer this question, mySidewalk spoke with three city leaders who are actively harnessing data—and reaping positive community outcomes as a result.  

Harnessing Data Helps Cities Effectively Address Social Issues

#DataChamp Profile: Greg Kindle, president of the Wyandotte Economic Development Council, Kansas

#DataChamp Profile: Greg Kindle, president of the Wyandotte Economic Development Council, Kansas

Greg Kindle, president of the Wyandotte Economic Development Council in Kansas, harnessed community data to connect the working poor with resources.

Using mySidewalk’s data platform, Greg’s team created an interactive map showing where the highest concentrations of the working poor in Wyandotte County were located. His team brought this information to local employers, churches, and other groups looking to reach out to the demographic.

“I’m always looking for ways to take really complicated data and boil it down in a way that people can understand,” said Greg.

He noted that this initiative was an important step in the county’s fight against poverty—specifically helping employers find people who need jobs.

“It’s not about finger pointing,” he said. “It’s about asking, ‘how do we solve for this?’ That way we can move forward with a solution and then track it.”

Harnessing Data Allows Cities to Communicate the “Why” Behind City Plans

#DataChamp Profile: Maeve Nevins Lavtar, senior park planner for Anchorage Parks and Recreation, Alaska

#DataChamp Profile: Maeve Nevins Lavtar, senior park planner for Anchorage Parks and Recreation, Alaska

Maeve Nevins Lavtar, senior park planner of Anchorage, Alaska, held community meetings to gather input for a park improvement plan. While the meetings were well attended, most of the meeting attendees were Caucasian senior citizens. The attendees argued that since few children lived in the area, implementing senior-friendly outdoor exercise equipment would be the best choice.

Through studying community data, Maeve knew that though there was indeed a large aging population, there were also many children in the community. When she brought this up to the attendees, however, they were doubtful.

Maeve and her planning colleague, Taylor Keegan, used mySidewalk to create a population demographics map of the area, which revealed the large population of children. Interestingly, the data showed that the community also contained a sizable population of individuals with disabilities.

By showing community members the data, Maeve was able to prove that Folker Park needed both amenities for children and more accessible equipment for residents living with disabilities. Luckily, the equipment requested for the elderly population could also serve those with disabilities, so both outdoor exercise equipment and facilities for children were written into the park plan.

“In the end we were able to use data to make everybody happy,” said Maeve.  


#DataChamp Profile: Ed Foley, management and budget services for Olathe, Kansas

#DataChamp Profile: Ed Foley, management and budget services for Olathe, Kansas

For Ed Foley—management and budget services for Olathe, Kansas—harnessing data boils down to effective communication.

"Data is a vital part of finding problems in the community and then solving those problems,” said Ed. “For example, mySidewalk partnered with us to map our citizen satisfaction data. In looking at that data, we discovered citizen satisfaction had been declining on enforcement of mowing and cutting of weeds."

Ed’s team used mySidewalk to map the citizen satisfaction data, showing where frustrated individuals were located, and which areas contained the most complaints.

The data showed that most of the dissatisfaction wasn’t about residential lawns, but about weed and grass growth around highway exits—some of which are maintained by the state and not under the authority of the city—as well as in public areas along creeks and trails.

“The maps helped us ask the right questions—negative perceptions aren’t necessarily about individual neighborhoods or how responsive the city is to issues,” said Kristine Martin, Olathe fire analyst who worked on the project.

Now that the team has a better scope of the problem, remedies are in progress for this spring. One of the strategies for dealing with the misperception is a community education campaign, which will inform citizens of the areas they can expect the city to maintain, as well as those natural areas intended to be left growing native grasses, such as creek and trail areas.

"Ultimately, we are doing this for the citizens,” said Ed. “If it gets measured, it gets managed. You want to be continually tracking and improving rather than being complacent."

A Better, More Informed Tomorrow for Cities

It’s clear that cities who use data to communicate with residents and improve processes are reaping significant benefits. These cities, however, are few and far between; most cities today simply open their data and consider the job done. Although it might take some time to begin harnessing your data, the benefits are worth the investment. If you’re looking to harness data, here are 4 simple steps to get you started:

  1. Put your data into a digestible format (think: pair written content with visual representations of data, such as easy-to-read charts and interactive maps—this gives your content meaning and helps tell the story you want to tell).

  2. Make that information available to stakeholders (think: provide stakeholders easy access to the data that you have; regularly update city website with interactive charts, maps, and other artifacts; and bring this data to meetings).

  3. Utilize citizen satisfaction data to your advantage (think: find out where dissatisfaction lies, and perhaps most importantly, why it exists in the first place). 

  4. Use data to support civic decisions (think: use data to show rather than tell residents why decisions are made). 

Cities that harness data are quickly emerging as leaders. Will your city be one of them?

If you'd like to have a short conversation about how mySidewalk can help you harness the power of data for your city, request a demo. We promise it'll be quick, focused on you, and productive. 


mySidewalk is a city intelligence tool that helps analysts track, analyze, and communicate progress on department and citywide goals. Our mission is to empower city leaders and the public with the most complete, clear, and real-time understanding of community data so they can improve and innovate together. You work hard for your data. What’s it doing for you?

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Lauren French has worked in the tech world as a marketing and content professional for the past two years. She earned a master’s degree in public relations from Michigan State University and holds an English degree from Indiana Wesleyan University. When she’s not thinking about marketing and content creation, Lauren enjoys binge-watching Netflix shows and drinking as much coffee as possible. She is also over-the-top obsessed with her two dogs, Hutch and Marty.