5 lessons on the people side of data: City of Asheville CIO

The crucial part of your data strategy? Handling the people concerns. Here's how to please internal and external customers as you share new data sets 
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Crossing the gap to big data

No matter what industry, government entity, or NGO you’re working for, data and data performance matter more now than ever before. And as it turns out, the most important part of getting data to work for your organization is through data engagement – that is, the people side of data.

[ Does your vocabulary reflect your people skills? Read our related article, 8 powerful phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders. ]

In 2012, our city of Asheville, NC, became the first city in the southern United States to release an open data catalog. Through that process and in the years since, our successes and learning opportunities have taught us many lessons about our IT organization, our customers, collaboration, and the importance of developing strong relationships with our constituents.

The power of transparent data 

We had two options: We could get on this bus or we could get run over by it.

Early in our journey, I told my IT staff they had two options: We could get on this bus or we could get run over by it. The choice was ours: We could embrace open data and the challenges and opportunities that come with it, or we could ignore it until it was too late. 

We embarked on this open data journey because we were repeatedly receiving the same types of data requests, for example, requests for permits and salary data. With every request, we had conversations with legal to agree on the fields of data we should and shouldn’t release. Each request could require hours of work.

To overcome these laborious requests, we proactively decided to publish automated, open data through an open data catalog that the public could browse on our website. This improved transparency, helped overcome community conflict, and saved our staff a lot of time  – things that every government strives to do.

Here’s what we’ve learned along the way:

1. Build a credible IT organization first

If your customer service scores are low, a data initiative, open or otherwise, isn’t something you can take on: You need to have a credible IT organization first. This is hard, gut-wrenching work that requires you to have some credibility in the bank.

A year after we began our open data journey, I was speaking to some of my peers in government and someone challenged me, saying that publishing data wasn’t IT’s job. If finance wanted to release data, let them do it. My point of view is that IT is the steward of data for the entire organization. There’s nobody else who can touch all of it except for us.

IT is in a position to be authoritative about data in a way that no other function can be.

IT is in a position to be authoritative about data in a way that no other function can be. But unless you have that credibility with your community, your fellow department directors, and fellow departments – and unless your organization respects your team, your expertise, and the work you do – you’re going to fail. 

2. Collaborate thoughtfully

At one point, salary data was not open at the City of Asheville, but it was a request that we received all the time. The problem with treating these requests on an individual basis was that no one took time to figure out how to do it correctly. When we decided to automate it, we sat down and did just that.

We invited all the stakeholders to the table – HR, legal, and finance – to discuss concerns and considerations. During this conversation, we learned that although salary is indeed an open record in North Carolina by law, there are some people who have protective orders that prevented us from legally releasing some information. Prior to collaborating with the others, we could have potentially released sensitive information that we shouldn’t have. No one wants to do that.

Taking the time to figure out how to automate this data the right way forced us to be thoughtful and working with others helped us to see challenges and issues that we otherwise may not have discovered.

3. Establish customer centricity

In the public sector especially, IT plays the role of customer advocate. Who the customer is doesn’t matter – it could be a resident or police officer. We’re going to make sure that folks get what they need, where provided by law.

When we encounter a difficult situation, it’s IT’s job to be the driver of that conversation because we’re the steward of the data. It’s our job to serve the customer, internal or external. Where we run into difficult situations is when other departments come to conclusions about data without consulting us first. 

For example, someone may give a quote to a local newspaper about why certain data can’t be released, which might not be true. This is problematic for a few reasons: First, because when you say something that isn’t true, that’s not exactly trust building! Second, even if certain data sets are not releasable, a conversation about objectives may lead us to understand that an aggregated or anonymized data set might achieve the objectives without violating people’s privacy or the law. 

That’s something that we as the data experts and stewards know, but others may not. That’s why it’s important for us to be involved in all situations. Our goal is to put our customers first and achieve transparency so all parties get what they need.

[ Read more by City of Asheville CIO Jonathan Feldman: Why CIOs must take risks that might get them fired. ]

4. Develop relationships before you need them

Data by itself won’t be used usefully without data engagement. You need to make relationships – with people in your community, with other partners, and with other departments – before you need them.

We put together a crime mapper app for the city. An advocate in the community helped us avoid a mistake.

When we put together a crime mapper app for the city, we adhered to usability principles, performed research, and collaborated with stakeholders. Once we produced a prototype, an advocate in the community alerted us that we shouldn’t be address-specific with certain crimes and that it would be better to generalize the location. That’s one example of a relationship with our community that helped us. 

Another example: We had a terrible police use-of-force case that made national news in 2018. Citizens wrote a petition that received thousands of signatures to open up the department’s use-of-force data. We formed a data team with people from the community, the police department, and our data experts from IT to make sure we were addressing issues like when and whether we would release the race of the officer on patrol – because sometimes those are sensitive data points – along with other data to protect the privacy of the officer and citizen. 

Having strong ties with your community and other stakeholders before you need them will help you tackle problems, arrive at solutions, and keep you on the path to achieving your goals.

5. Don’t go it alone

Once you win the battle of whether or not you care about opening up data and whether IT should be involved in it or not, there are many resources you should tap to help you. A few include the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins and a program out of Bloomberg Philanthropies called What Works Cities.

While we’ve been an early mover in this, we’re still learning. What we do know is that our digital society isn’t going anywhere, and it’s getting really, really good with data, data engagement, and data governance. All of these are essential to the long-term health of your municipality, and the long-term health of your IT organization, too.

[ Read also: 3 reasons data hoarding may not pay off. ]

Jonathan Feldman is the CIO for Wake County in NC and is an award-winning CIO, speaker, and writer. He was named a top CIO to follow by the Huffington Post and was honored with a Frost & Sullivan CIO Impact Award. He was previously CIO for the City of Asheville, NC.