Saint Paul Public Library, St. Paul, MN

Increasing awareness of open data through community conversations

Partner organization: Saint Paul’s Office of Technology and Communications

Library roles played: Connecting data users, Showing the importance of civic data, Developing civic data literacy, Increasing the library’s capacity

Saint Paul Public Library worked with local government to increase awareness of civic data through multiple strategies: creating informational media describing local open data, presenting public events, and offering trainings for library staff. The work they were doing was emergent, so the team needed to be adaptive to learning about audience needs and changing roles within the team itself. To further the work, the team proactively designed strategies to institutionalize the library’s role in the local civic data ecosystem.

For our project, we identified an opportunity to create a more data literate community and a more responsive, inclusive city government by: (1) increasing awareness of the civic data available in general and in particular the City of Saint Paul’s Open Information portal, (2) creating opportunities for both connected and disconnected residents to engage more deeply with data that is relevant to their community, and (3) developing a framework for gathering and responding to feedback and common questions.

To increase awareness of open data, we created an Open Saint Paul brochure to illustrate what open data is, what is collected, how it is shared, and what are the benefits, rights, and responsibilities of both civic data owners and everyday users.

Open Saint Paul Brochure (front)
Open Saint Paul Brochure (back)

We also designed and presented a series of events aimed at giving residents the opportunity to understand and discuss civic data opportunities and challenges. We held the events at three of our most visited libraries, all in diverse neighborhoods that have historically experienced an under-investment in technology. The events included panel discussions with local experts and data intermediaries, with questions focused on the use of open and civic data in community settings. To further engage attendees and boost data literacy, we gave an overview of the information portal, replicated hands-on activities from Detroit Digital Justice Coalition’s DiscoTech model, and most importantly provided healthy food and drinks at every session.

We also provided training for library staff, which included an introduction to the City’s open data properties as well as the technical knowledge necessary to help library patrons with its operation. We realized that this training was necessary, as there was a general lack of awareness about open data across the City. We completed multiple training sessions before our events started to ensure that library staff would be prepared to answer questions once we had our events as well as our paper guide available for the public.

Reaching disconnected residents at the scale we intended proved to be challenging. The formality of a panel structure may have caused some apprehension, but our promotion of the events was not as dispersed in the community as we initially intended. We promoted the events through the brochure, flyers and a social media campaign that were well received and piqued the interests of individuals and organizations seeking to share their projects or work with the City. However, we did not see as much in-person interest and perhaps more print or earned media was needed. Where we saw the most interest from people without a data background was at the events themselves. During our second event, we were in a busy combined Library and Parks & Recreation space where after 15 minutes of zero attendees, an announcement was made over the loudspeaker. Soon we had an all-ages crowd that had questions for almost every panelist and were excited to jump into activities. This led us to think that less emphasis on splashy marketing and more informal pop-up or tabling events would be better received.

In the next section, the Saint Paul project team reflects on aspects that helped their library grow in supporting civic data. Specifically, they highlight the importance of taking a project management approach, creating multiple versions of events at different scales, and getting buy-in and support from library leadership to spread the work across the organization.

As team roles changed throughout the project, we decided to write a project charter about halfway through to outline the opportunity, scope, roles and expectations. We recommend doing this from the start to keep momentum and communication going through the sometimes inevitable staff and organizational changes of public service.

As team roles changed throughout the project, we decided to write a project charter about halfway through to outline the opportunity, scope, roles and expectations. We recommend doing this from the start to keep momentum and communication going through the sometimes inevitable staff and organizational changes of public service.

This project helped to elevate the importance of the work and has allowed us to develop our project with an eye towards sustaining it into the future. We have been able to not only create events to meet our current objective but have taken the time to develop smaller versions of our events.

To give us the space to continue the work, we have included leadership in our plans to develop a template-building component related to this project and tied it to overall department strategic objectives. We will be able to use these templates in our individual departments as well as in our collaboration.

Learn more:

Project Team:

  • Xenia Hernández, Saint Paul Public Library

  • Derek Engelking, City of Saint Paul