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What Philanthropy Can Learn from Open Government Data Efforts
July 5, 2018

Daniela Pineda, Ph.D., is vice president of integration and learning at First 5 LA, an independent public agency created by voters to advocate for programs and polices benefiting young children. A version of this post also appears in the GOVERNING blog.

Daniela Pineda Photo 2Statistics-packed spreadsheets and lengthy, jargon-filled reports can be enough to make anybody feel dizzy. It's natural. That makes it the responsibility for those of us involved in government and its related institutions to find more creative ways to share the breadth of information we have with those who can benefit from it.

Government agencies, foundations and nonprofits can find ways to make data, outcomes and reports more user-friendly and accessible. In meeting the goal of transparency, we must go beyond inviting people to wade through dense piles of data and instead make them feel welcome using it, so they gain insights and understanding.

How can this be done? We need to make our data less wonky, if you will.

This might sound silly, and being transparent might sound as easy as simply releasing documents. But while leaders of public agencies and officeholders are compelled to comply with requests under freedom-of-information and public-records laws, genuine transparency requires a commitment to making the information being shared easy to understand and useful.

“…genuine transparency requires a commitment to making the information being shared easy to understand and useful.”

Things to consider include how your intended audience prefers to access and consume information. For instance, there are generational differences in the accessing of information on tablets and mobile devices as opposed to traditional websites. Consider all the platforms your audience uses to view information, such as smartphone apps, news websites and social media platforms, to constantly evolve based on their feedback.

Spreadsheets just won't work here. You need to invest in data visualization techniques and content writing to explain data, no matter how it is accessed.

The second annual Equipt to Innovate survey, published by Governing in partnership with Living Cities, found several cities not only using data consistently to drive decision-making but also embracing ways to make data digestible for the publics they serve.

Los Angeles' DataLA portal, for example, offers more than 1,000 data sets for all to use along with trainings and tutorials on how to make charts, maps and other visualization. The portal's blog offers a robust discussion of the issues and challenges faced with using existing data to meet common requests. Louisville, Ky., went the proverbial extra mile, putting a lot of thought into what data would be of interest to residents and sharing the best examples of free online services that have been built using the metro government's open data.

Louisville's efforts point up the seemingly obvious but critical strategy of making sure you know what information your target audience actually needs. Have you asked? Perhaps not. The answers should guide you, but also remember to be flexible about what you are asking. For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District is set to launch a new portal later this summer to provide parents with data, and is still learning how to supply information that parents find useful. District officials are listening to feedback throughout the process, and they are willing to adjust. One important strategy for this is to make your audience -- or a sampling of them -- part of your beta testing. Ask what information they found useful and what else would have been helpful.

“When you share, you are inviting others to engage with you about how to improve your work.”

Remember, the first time you allow a glimpse into your data and processes, it's inevitable your information will have gaps and kinks that you can't foresee. And if you are lucky to get feedback about what didn't work so well, it may even seem harsh. Don't take it personally. It's an opportunity to ask your audience what could be done better and commit to doing so. It may take weeks, months or maybe longer to package information for release, making it usable and accessible, but this is an investment worth making. You might miss the mark the first time, but make a commitment to keep trying.

And don't be daunted by the reality that anytime you share information you expose yourself to criticism. Sharing with the public that a project didn't meet expectations or failed completely is a challenge no matter how you look at it. But sharing, even when it is sharing your weaknesses, is a strength your organization can use to build its reputation and gain influence in the long term.

When you share, you are inviting others to engage with you about how to improve your work. You also are modeling the importance of being open about failure. This openness is what helps others feel like partners in the work, and they will feel more comfortable opening up about their own struggles. You might be surprised at who will reach out and what type of partnerships can come from sharing.

Through this process, you will build your reputation and credibility, helping your organization advance its goals. Ultimately, it's about helping those you serve by giving them the opportunity to help you.

--Daniela Pineda

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  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

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