How Austin Engages and Educates Its Data Liaisons

December 19, 2017 9:00 am PST | Data as a Service

Data is only as valuable as you make it. That’s why the city of Austin launched the open data liaison program to empower city departments to learn about, share, and leverage data in meaningful ways that work for them.

Launched about four years ago, every city department is involved in the program, resulting in approximately 40 data liaisons. The program tends to attract and best support city employees who are driven to learn to use data to improve community services.

Here’s how the program works:


1. Every Department Has a Trusted Data Liaison

In an effort to expand its open data capacity, the city tasked each department with assigning an open data liaison from their team to be responsible for all open data efforts. From there, the program runs on a decentralized model that gives each department the power to decide what they do with their data to best achieve their own goals. Each department is empowered, for example, to upload their data to Austin’s Open Data Portal.


Austin's Open Data Portal


IT Manager Charles Purma notes that recently data has become “mission-critical” to departments like Health and Emergency Medical Services (EMS), where their performance metrics are based on open data. They use the data to track things like response times, and environmental factors where there are high-call volumes. The Transportation Department also uses data to see performance metrics of traffic signals, timing of signals, and how performance is being reported.


Austin's Transportation Department Tracks Signal Timing
The Transportation department’s signal timing performance.



2. Departments Are Empowered to Develop Their Data Program

While each department has a data liaison, it’s completely up to the departments to decide how they are going to use their data. As a result, Austin’s departments have become empowered to use data in innovative ways to take on challenges and improve processes in their area of expertise.

“It’s hard to drill down because it is happening everywhere. Sometimes we won’t even hear about it until we see a press release,” notes Purma. “It’s happening more organically and without anyone being told to do it. People are empowered and have the tool set now to go on their own to do these things.”


3. Education Is Consistent

In its commitment to support departments staying up-to-date on how to leverage data, the city of Austin’s IT team hosts monthly educational “meetups” for data liaisons. Whether it’s a presentation from a university professor on data visualization, an expert from the health industry on the importance of data, or an internal liaison with a success story, the agenda is diverse.

The meetups are also open to the public, and Purma estimates there are between 30-50 total participants at each meeting. Sometimes that number is higher. For example, after Hurricane Harvey, community members from other counties traveled to listen in on a presentation about open data and emergency management and crisis situations.


“You know it’s a good meetup when people don’t want to leave.” —IT Manager Charles Purma


Purma notes that the atmosphere of each meetup is always informal and fun, but filled with excitement. The second half of the session is hands-on where participants can discuss and share with each other, and it often goes over time. “We always leave time at the end for chatting,” Purma said. “You know it’s a good meetup when people don’t want to leave. We have people from one to three in the afternoon and they’re still hanging around at 3:30 or 4. We actually have to kick people out.”


4. Trust People to Find Their Way

As with any city, Austin has a diverse range of departments — some are large, some are small, some have a strong technology team, and others do not. To help guide departments in selecting the best person for the role, Purma and his team posed simple questions. “We asked, ‘Who are the folks who you reach out to when you need to do some kind of reporting? When you need data?’ It is all over the place — we have some technical folks, some non-technical folks, and some people more on the communication side of things,” he says.

In fact, that diverse mix of team members has ended up making the data liaison program so successful. “At first it was difficult to bring all of those types of people together, but I’m so happy we did it that way and weren’t too prescriptive because those people have all learned from each other,” Purma said. “Over time, it organically worked out and people have self-selected and now we have a great group of people with different skill sets and expertise. That’s been a good thing for us.”

Inspired by Austin’s work to build its data program? Come hear from the Austin team at Socrata Connect 2018. Save your seat today!

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