Western New York Library Resources Council, Western NY

Clarifying library roles in an expansive regional civic data ecosystem

Partner organizations: rprt, LLC, Butler Library at SUNY Buffalo State

Library roles played: Increasing library capacity

The Western New York Library Resources Council (WNYLRC) a not-for-profit consortium of libraries and library systems serving six counties saw a need to examine and assess the open civic data environment in the region. They worked with a consultant to analyze how local municipal websites were making data public and found civic data in the region to be disparate and in clear need of organization.

The library council felt that there was a potential role for the library one team member said, "people will go through elaborate backflips to get primary source data and don't think of going to a library" and saw multiple avenues to potentially pursue, whether convening a data producer coalition, providing data literacy trainings for librarians, or providing data management expertise to local municipalities. The team was able to connect with Queens Public Library and learn about their staff data literacy trainings. While the scale of open data uncovered by the team's environmental scan seemed too big to get a handle on, WNYLRC ultimately found a path forward by choosing to pursue a specific, small scale training project based on the Queens’ curriculum.

Our project goal was to try to identify and describe the open civic data environment in the region so that we could begin to develop a sense of direction for the involvement of libraries in growing awareness and use of open civic data in our communities.

The Western New York region encompasses roughly seven counties. Although not geographically large in area, it is very diverse in many ways. There are extremes of wealth and poverty, racial and ethnic diversity in some areas, rural and urban areas, and a complex web of municipal government entities throughout. Without basic literacy skills and, without access to the digital tools and resources to access data that could be quality of life changers, a great number of people in Western New York are at a distinct disadvantage. The one institution found in nearly every community where there are some resources to help overcome these obstacles is the library. Not just public libraries, but academic and school libraries are also where access to information is provided equally.

The region has experienced some developments in raising awareness of and addressing issues of open civic data. For example the City of Buffalo recently launched an open data portal with an associated "Data 101" training course. However, the efforts to date have not taken a broader regional approach, nor have they really involved the library community. We observed that of the several government and non-government entities involved in creating, managing and using open civic data, that none have extended an “invitation” to libraries to participate in their work, and none have taken the lead in trying to establish a broader coalition of entities to address issues of open civic data and their potential impact in our communities.

Our hope was to initiate an environmental scan of the region to identify sources of open civic data, types of data and possible gaps in coverage; identify key stakeholders in the local civic data ecosystems; help raise public awareness of and promote greater public engagement with open civic data and; develop training for librarians to become “open civic data intermediaries” for their communities.

The project team hired analytics firm rprt, LLC to conduct this scan. Their research allowed us to make some general observations about the potential for an open civic data ecosystem in the region: the amount of open civic data is limitless and growing; open civic data can be obscure and hard to find; and open civic data is not homogeneous: there is no single standard for indexing, describing or governing the use of open civic data, making it difficult to reuse. Our scan showed us that our initial thoughts of the open civic data ecosystem as finite and easy to identify were incorrect!

Based on these observations, we convened a small of group of librarians as a next step in identifying the major stakeholders in the region regarding open civic data. This discussion served to lay out a way to raise public awareness, promote public engagement, and enhance the role of librarians as open civic data intermediaries, with the ultimate goal of creating a training document for area librarians.

Through this project, we’ve really come to terms with the scope of building an open civic data ecosystem. This is such a “new” concept for so many in the region. Neither municipal nor private entities have taken the lead in forming a coalition of interests and resources to address the issues shared by all. We are reluctant to have libraries “take the lead” at this point since we do not have the knowledge base to do so.

...we will have a core group of librarians who will be able to reach out to stakeholders in an informed way to start building networks.

That said, we’ve made some really useful connections with other stakeholders in the state. We were able to connect with fellow Civic Switchboard field project team members from Queens Public Library. Their training tools will likely prove useful for future training in Spring 2020. Our hope is that once the training takes place, we will have a core group of librarians who will be able to reach out to stakeholders in an informed way to start building networks.

As a regional organization, we have the communication network to be able to learn what the types of libraries in the region may be doing in relation to open civic data. We can also help disseminate information about ongoing activities. If we can successfully organize the librarians in the region – despite differences in systems or types – to come together on the topic of open civic data, we might be able to serve as a model for the region’s municipal and private entities that are stakeholders in open civic data.

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Project Team

  • Heidi Ziemer, Western New York Library Resources Council

  • Jamie Bono, rprt, LLC