Virginia Beach’s 4-Step Process to Releasing Data
In 2013, a Code for America brigade approached Virginia Beach, wanting to hack the city’s budget data. The Budget Office was intrigued, since the city council had requested a line-item view into the data. They shared 60,000 lines of budget-related data.
“We overwhelmed them,” say Catheryn Whitesell, Director of the Strategy, Transparency, Innovation and Resiliency (STIR) Office in Virginia Beach, who’s worked for 30 years in Virginia Beach’s Budget Office. But, rather than giving up when faced with the challenge of getting financial data online, Virginia Beach, which has a history of embracing transparency, was inspired. “It gave us a vision for what could be,” says Whitesell.
During a presentation at Socrata Connect, Whitesell discussed how Virginia Beach was able to get its financial data online and build a case for the data’s utility with sometimes reluctant internal users.
The Open Budget Portal Puts the Citizens’ Dollars on Display
Virginia Beach launched its Socrata-powered budget portal in 2015, to what Whitesell describes as “rave reviews” from city council members and the general assembly. Virginia Beach residents can track, by line item, expenditures versus the budgeted numbers. That’s important, says Whitesell.
“I believe the budget is the citizens’ dollars — we need to be able to tell them [the budget], and they need to be able to understand it.” —Catheryn Whitesell, Director of the Strategy, Transparency, Innovation and Resiliency (STIR) Office in Virginia Beach
“I believe the budget is the citizens’ dollars — we need to be able to tell them [the budget], and they need to be able to understand it. We want to make sure it’s as easy to use as possible,” she says. But, achieving public engagement with data and transparency from the city are relatively easy compared to Whitesell’s other driving priority: Internal use of data.
Building a Case for Data’s Utility with Data Owners
There’s no mandate — from either the city or the state — requiring Virginia Beach to publish its financial data online. Whitsell and her team had to build a case for the benefits of open data to departments and leaders across the city government. Some departments and data owners in Virginia Beach diligently collect and input data into systems, but fail to see its utility. “What we really wanted was to help our data owners find value in the data they’re collecting,” says Whitesell. “We also wanted to look for opportunities to save money and improve our service delivery to our citizens.”
“What we really wanted was to help our data owners find value in the data they’re collecting.” —Catheryn Whitesell, Director of the STIR Office in Virginia Beach
Here’s a look at the process Whitesell and her team followed:
Step 1: Assemble a Data Governance Board
The data governance board oversees the release of data, from identifying datasets to doing an internal review before the data is published. Whitesell made sure to include skeptics, as well as champions, on the board. She finds those slowest to release data “have some valuable insights into some of the problems you’ll face” while publishing it.
Step 2: Work with Departments to Identify Datasets
The enthusiasm level for sharing data varies from department to department in Virginia Beach, so Whitesell finds it useful to ask department leaders to share a question they’d like answered by data. The responses are sometimes surprising. The Planning Department leaders, for instance, asked “How long does it take for us to issue a building permit?”
The simplicity of the question highlights an important point: The systems in place aren’t always designed to answer basic questions. “Letting the data out, using tools that are out there and available now, makes these answers available to our internal users,” says Whitesell.
Step 3: Review Data Internally Before Publishing Publicly
The working group, which is a subset of the board, does a lot of the heavy lifting once datasets are identified. They work with data owners to get the data in shape, defining and approving dataset attributes. Once that’s done, the data is published to the portal internally — this gives the board, data owners, the working group, and all interested parties an opportunity to review and clean the data, making sure it’s ready for public exposure. Only after this process is complete is the data published for public view.
Step 4: Analyze Data Usage
This step could easily be overlooked, but it’s important as well: Virginia Beach monitors the analytics to see which datasets pique public interest — for Virginia Beach, as is true for many governments, employee salary and restaurant inspection datasets are most popular.
Learn More about Virginia Beach’s Path to Open Data
For more on Virginia Beach’s embrace of open data and transparency, read our case study. Plus, watch Catheryn Whitesell’s presentation during Socrata Connect.