How Cambridge Created a Civic Innovation Challenge Inventory

October 20, 2017 12:52 pm PST | Data as a Service

When the city of Cambridge wanted to answer the question, “What is the best way to engage residents in open data?” they brought in help from one of the top universities in the world, Harvard. And, they ended up with a very useful result.

Jennifer Angarita, a Summer Fellow in Innovation from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, spent the summer of 2016 taking a close look at engagement in the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts’ open data program. Her resulting analysis, “Amplifying Civic Innovation: Community Engagement Strategies for Open Data Collaborations,” offered some recommendations. The top suggestion was:

Successful open data projects are problem-oriented, often focusing on addressing specific, defined problems or needs.

When Cambridge open data Program Manager Josh Wolff heard this recommendation, it made sense right away. He had been attending Code for Boston meetings and chatting one-on-one with developers. He knew they were most curious about how they could really make a difference and solve a problem for the city.

That’s when Wolff decided to create the Civic Innovation Challenge Inventory.


Building the Inventory

Once Wolff understood the importance of highlighting pressing issues, he got to work creating an inventory of them. As part of his job, Wolff uploads all data onto the Cambridge portal. That way he can ensure the data is well organized, tagged, and has sufficient metadata so users can find it when searching.

“My job is to make sure the open data program does a lot of good without taking a lot of department staff time,” says Wolff.

In order to move towards problem statements, Wolff spent one afternoon in early 2017 altering the fields on his metadata request form to include a section for a “problem statement.”

From that point on, any data owner submitting new data to the portal had to include a way the data could be put to work to solve an issue. Those statements then fed the Cambridge Civic Innovation Challenge Inventory (CICI). In an article in Statescoop, “Civic Innovation Challenge Inventory Pairs Problems with Open Data in Cambridge,” Wolff described one of the main benefits of keeping an inventory of challenges by saying, “It’s not just a challenge that lasts a few weeks, not a single day hackathon. It’s an ongoing effort.”

Some example of datasets and challenges currently listed in the inventory include:

Sanitary Violations: How can Cambridge better utilize and present this data to protect public health and safety and improve community access to inspection information?

Police Department Crash Data – Updated: What are the significant trends in Cambridge crashes? How might Cambridge reduce crash rates?

Building Permits: 1 and 2 Family: What does this dataset tell us about development trends in Cambridge?


Permits Dashboard Sparked by Inventory

The inventory has more brought interest to the open data program. Wolff says, “I get a call once a month or so from someone saying, ‘I’m interested in this problem. Could you go into more detail?’ I wouldn’t get those calls before we unveiled this program.”

One developer in Cambridge took inspiration from the inventory to create a “Permits Dashboard.” He used the Board of Zoning Appeals Requests dataset to create a map that “shows Cambridge variances and special permits with status of under review, approved, denied or withdrawn and application dates in 2015-2017.”


Cambridge Permits Dashboard


Looking at the Future

Wolff is excited to improve the inventory. He’s learned some lessons along the way. For example, he’s relaxed his rule that all datasets must have a problem statement since some data owners don’t believe their data suits one particular problem. And, he works hard to write problem statements that are broad enough to invite in a lot of people but specific to get the right work done.

Wolff has also had to wrestle with the possibility of prioritizing the problem statements since so many developers want to know which ones will have the biggest impact. Wolff says that the city of Cambridge is setting new strategic goals in the coming year and he plans to associate each problem statement with one or more of those goals.

Finally, he looks forward to working closer with university students and also featuring a problem statement on the homepage of the portal. Overall, the program is a success.

“When I go to Code for Boston meetings, they love the idea. This is the type of thing they have been asking for for a long time,” says Wolff.


Want to get your data live in the cloud and available to developers? Contact Socrata. We’d love to talk with you about what’s possible for your community.

Previous Article
Data as a Service
Metadata Basics and Advice for Open Government Leaders

October 24, 2017

Next ArticleSeattle Map
Data as a Service
Delight Don’t Distract: 3 Tips for Better Data Visualizations

October 17, 2017