5 Ways to build engaged communities around open data

If you’ve read any of the articles looking back at the best of 2014 or anticipating 2015 trends as we close out the year, you know that open data, unsurprisingly, is a hot topic. GovDelivery was even in the news with our acquisition of open data champion, NuCivic, in December.Analyzing business growth

It’s clear that open data is a powerful tool in the public sector. It connects citizens with government data, enabling developers to build innovative apps, all while promoting transparency.

But there’s one catch. Open data unlocks its power when audiences actually know about it and use it!

Whether you work at a federal organization or a city, the success of any open data portal hinders on the ability for public sector organizations to drive awareness around its existence and empower those who can make a difference with it.

By implementing strong audience growth and engagement strategies, organizations can build a robust, diverse, open data community who will engage with the data to improve core outcomes, ranging from health and public safety to economic development.

So where do you start? Here are 5 ways to build an engaged community around open data.

1.     Define your target audiences and necessary resources

Do you know who the main users of your open data portal are? Citizens, journalists and developers all need different tools and resources to get the most from your data. Identify these different groups and map out what you can provide them to help drive open data awareness and usage.

Here are some examples of audiences, their objectives and resources to think about providing:

Audience Objective Resources Needed
Developer/Technologist Put open data to use through developing apps and technology that leverage the data. Program access, up-to-date data, local events (hackathons or meet ups), information on ongoing projects, developer community information.
Citizen/Non-Technical Impacted by the data. Want transparency and are the target audience for apps that leverage the data. General awareness, context, success stories, existing apps, visualizations, channel to submit feedback or ask questions.
Local Businesses/Entrepreneurs Link the app to business processes or create new uses from the app. Program access, up-to-date data, local events (hackathons or meet ups).
Large-scale data-focused companies Distribute data for broader, more scalable consumption. Start with a list of companies that would be interested in your data and connect with them on data release schedules and where you can leverage quick wins by partnering.
Journalist/Researcher/Analyst Analyze the data for new trends and stories showing the impact on the communities involved. Up-to-date data, tools for visualizations/comparisons, links to other cities, findings from data, updates, data journalist community.
Other Government Employees Gain access to benchmarks to improve other open data portals and have opportunities to collaborate on overlapping data points. Tools for visualizations/comparisons, links to other cities, context on important data sets/city priorities, non open data, help desk.

2.     Promote open data sets across all digital properties

In order to make your open data portal as successful as possible, you need to attract large communities of citizens, businesses, journalists and developers. People will already be visiting your website or portal when they’re looking for a service or resource. This is the optimal time to promote your data by optimizing your website to convert these visitors into an engaged audience. Try using overlays, contextual sign ups, and sign ups offered within individual data sets to achieve this.

You can also actively market to existing communities around topic areas of interest. For example, if you had existing email subscribers for crime statistics, environmental initiatives, and so on, it’s a natural connection that those subscribers should receive a notification that that data is now available in your portal.

3.     Proactively notify interested parties when new or updated data is availableThey have the best equipment for the job

Your data may change over time, especially if you have a new portal. Keep people informed proactively rather than waiting for them to come to your site and taking the risk of losing them as an engaged audience member. People who already use your data are the perfect target for promoting new data sets.

Let people subscribe to updates when any new data sets are available, when data is available on an existing topic (like health or transit), or when changes or additions are made to the data within an existing data set on the portal (e.g. a new row is added to the 311 requests set or changes are made to the inspection score for a particular restaurant).

4.     Solicit feedback, outcomes and share success stories

Sharing success stories, ideas, or suggested uses for data can help spark innovation to continue to improve the portal. Asking for feedback also helps you gauge how well your data works for your top users.

By leveraging email and SMS/text messages to systematically ask users for feedback on the portal, outcomes and success stories, you give them a voice, showing them that their input is important to the success of the portal.

5.     Let your audience become advocates

Your audience of journalists, developers and businesses are likely well connected. Let them spread your messages by making your data (and information about the data) shareable so they can easily promote it to their own networks.

Use widgets (these can be unique to each data set) to display the most recent data updates. Also, try offering sharing functionality like “Share this Email” or a suggested tweet at the banner of your email to encourage your audience to do the talking for you about the portal.

Open data can be a powerful tool to help your organization connect citizens, journalists, developers, and businesses with government data, sparking innovation and ultimately improving citizen satisfaction with your services. By building an informed, engaged audience with your data portal, you’re well on your way to making that portal useful for your communities. Try putting these 5 open data portal tips into practice and see what your data strategy can accomplish in 2015.

Have any other tips we missed? Or a question for us around building an open data community? Post in the comments below or send us an email at


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