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Small and Mid-Sized Cities: The Next Frontier in Open Data

One of the great things about the Code for America Summit is that it’s a chance for civic innovators from all over the country (and from other countries) to come together and get their batteries recharged.

Working for change in government (and from outside government) is no easy task, and when innovation is slow to take hold it can be easy to become disillusioned. Everyone who fights for change can get worn down eventually.

The CfA Summit is a great event to bring people together from all over the civic technology movement, share success stories, and talk about what inspires us to do this work. I always leave feeling excited and ready to take up the challenge again.

But more than this, it’s a chance for us to come together and talk about what we can — and must — do better.

To this point, I was genuinely inspired by the talk from Laurenellen McCann, who challenged civic technologists and innovators to “build with, not for.” I was also intrigued to hear Yiaway Yeh talk about the “Monday morning hangover” after a weekend long civic hacking event. (Personally, I’ve never had this feeling — but I digress…)

For me, the issue I wanted to touch on at the Summit is how broadly open data is being adopted. When we talk about open data, we are almost always using examples from large cities. When I began preparing my talk for the Summit, I wanted to pull together information on which cities were adopting open data and which ones were not, and then compare them based on the size of those cities.

What I found was that most large cities in this country have adopted open data in some fashion, while most small to mid-sized cities have not.

If we look at data from the Census Bureau on incorporated places in the U.S. and information from a variety of different sources on governments that have adopted open data policies or published data, we see the following:

Big Cities:

  • 9 of the 10 largest US cities have adopted open data
  • 19 of the top 25 most populous cities have adopted open data
  • Of cities with populations > 500k, 71% have adopted open data

Small Cities:

  • 256 incorporated places in the U.S. with populations between 500k – 100k
  • Only 39 have open data policy or make open data available
  • A mere 15% of smaller cities have adopted open data

As we can see, the data shows a markedly different adoption rate for open data between large cities (those with populations of 500,000 or more) and smaller cities (those with populations between 100,000 and 500,000).

There are at least a few things we can do to address this problem.

First, we need more options for smaller governments to release open data. We’re not going make progress in getting smaller governments to adopt open data if the cost of standing up a data portal has the same budget impact as the salary for a teacher, or a cop, or a firefighter, or a building inspector — I just don’t think that’s sustainable.

Equally important, we need to work on developing useful new data standards. This won’t always be easy, but it’s important work and we need to do it.

For smaller cities without the deep technology, journalism, and research communities that can help drive open data adoption, data standards are a way to export civic technology needs to larger cities. I believe they are critical to driving adoption of open data in the many small and mid-sized cities in this country.

We’ve already seen what open data looks like in big cities, and they are already moving to take the next steps in the evolution of their open data programs – but smaller cities risk getting left behind.

They next frontier in open data is in small and mid-sized cities. I’m looking forward to seeing how much progress we have made on this front at next year’s Summit.