Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library, Charlotte, NC

Organizing a local civic data council as groundwork for an open data portal

Partner organizations: UNC Charlotte Urban Institute

Library roles played: Connecting data producers, Showing the importance of civic data

The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library initially partnered with UNC Charlotte Urban Institute with the hope of launching a Civic Data Council comprised of local data providers. Both partners experienced leadership changes mid-stream and the library ended up working mostly on its own. The project revealed a clear need around organizing local data providers, and early results supported the library was optimally positioned to fill this role. Moving forward, the library will need to 1) coordinate how to turn the council's ideas into reality, and 2) gather institutional support where those ideas require investments of time and resources.

Our project was designed to expand access to civic data and empower users to utilize the benefits of civic data within their everyday lives. We hoped to accomplish this by first forming our own Civic Data Council between the Library, the UNCC Urban Institute, and the multiple municipalities and data providers within Mecklenburg County. From this group we would begin laying the ground work and foundation for future collaborative initiatives that highlight the importance of data literacy and data access.

The data landscape within Mecklenburg County is complex. Charlotte as a city effectively has two major government systems (The City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County) each generating their own siloed datasets within the areas of their purview. In addition, Mecklenburg County houses several townships that each have their own data reporting mechanisms – these municipalities include Matthews, Mint Hill, Pineville, Huntersville, Cornelius, and Davidson. The civic data ecosystem remains complex, which is a perfect use case for the Library to come in as a neutral party to convene and organize the collaborative activities of this group.

From our initial meeting nearly all of the stakeholders relayed to us that they were excited about the Library stepping up and gathering this group, and they thought that it aligned perfectly to the library’s charge, even though it did represent a new direction for our institution.

Our first tactic was engaging the potential stakeholders and explaining our charge in building out a civic data council with the hope of creating better on-ramps for community members to access and leverage their civic data. We also took this conversation outside of our workplace choosing to strategically meet at a local breakfast joint called the Famous Toastery, creating an environment that was non-threatening, casual, and collaborative from the get-go (plus who can turn down a free breakfast?). From our initial meeting nearly all of the stakeholders relayed to us that they were excited about the Library stepping up and gathering this group, and they thought that it aligned perfectly to the library’s charge, even though it did represent a new direction for our institution.

Civic Data Council at the Famous Toastery. Photo by Seth Ervin, CC-BY

Unfortunately, our project went through some massive leadership changes during its first year causing delays in our progress. It became more important in terms of the Library’s sustainability to work as a convener and organizer of these public datasets, instead of being the owner and operator of a community data portal. It will be interesting to see what conflict may arise when the Civic Data Council begins to “cost” something so that we remain collaborative with the group. As the project begins to build momentum, the Library's CIO will allocate resources from the Innovation Fund accordingly, as well as seek out additional funding from grants and other interested funders. Stakeholders may also contribute.

The major success was that the stakeholders that were gathered were excited and enthusiastic about the library convening the group. Several of the representatives identified areas where we could better collaborate including:

  • Surveying and auditing the dataset landscape

  • Establishing a metadata standard across all the stakeholder datasets

  • Creating data literacy training modules via the Library’s Digital Branch

  • Working intentionally to involve all the townships via leveraging and aligning with the Livable Meck Plan

  • Developing a MOU to help define and communicate the group's charge and collaboration.

The main takeaway is that at least in our local context, there is a real hunger for someone (anyone?) to take the lead in organizing data providers within the community. From my impression, it seemed that many of the other stakeholders felt relieved that the Library was establishing this role as our institution remains largely neutral and aligned for the public’s best interests.

Project Team

  • Seth Ervin, Chief Innovation Officer, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

  • Keisha Portis, Digital Channel Leader, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library