Building libraries into civic data partnerships

Libraries and other civic data intermediaries are united in the type of work that they do: they help people find, use, and apply information. Similar values, goals, and missions create fertile ground for collaboration around civic data and an obvious opportunity to work together.

We’re sharing some of the factors that have helped our collaboration in Pittsburgh. Our partnership involves three organizations: the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center (a joint project of the City of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and the University of Pittsburgh that is housed at the University Center for Social and Urban Research), the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and the University Library System at the University of Pittsburgh. Through this collaboration, we have worked together on joint projects, organized events in the region, engaged in information sharing and brainstorming, and connected our user groups with the partner organizations.

Connecting to Your Library’s Mission

Collaborating around civic data means working across institutions. This kind of work often requires some organizational permission or, at a minimum, not getting blocked by your organization's leadership. Your library's leaders also might need to be on board if they are going to allocate resources -- like your time! -- to the work. If you can articulate how partnerships around civic data connect directly to your library's mission and values, you'll have a better chance of getting the buy-in and support that you need.

Every organization is a little different, and so the strategy of connecting the civic data work you want to do to your library's mission will be specific to you. Here's what it looked like for us:

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP) recognizes data literacy is an increasingly important literacy for the staff and community to cultivate. Civic data partnerships are a core part of CLP's Beyond Big Data, a multiyear initiative together with the people of Pittsburgh to activate and amplify our collective ability to use data to understand and improve our lives and communities. The importance of data work, partnerships, and civic participation are woven throughout the six areas of focus of CLP's 2018-2022 Strategic Plan. For example, the “Inclusive and Equitable” area of focus has a goal of promoting digital inclusion and facilitating fluency and our "Informative and Empowering” area includes the commitment to inform the community on privacy rights and the reliability of information. All six areas emphasize the importance of community data to aid in planning and evaluation.

For the University Library System, civic data partnerships align with both the goals of the University of Pittsburgh and the aims outlined in the library’s long range plan. In the 2016-2020 Strategic Plan for Pitt, one of the five top-level strategic goals is to strengthen our communities “from the Pitt community, to our region, and the world around us[,] by expanding engagements, enriching connections, and embracing a global perspective.” The University Library System Long Range Plan for 2014-2017 includes a commitment to growing community strength through relationships that support the stewardship and discoverability of information about Pittsburgh and the region. By working with the WPRDC and CLP, the University Library System connected with a project that has regional impact and that supports the preservation and accessibility of regional information.

Once you've identified connections like these, what do you do with them? We try to include an explicit big-picture mission for our civic data partnerships and an articulation of how it connects with organizational goals whenever we create communications that our internal colleagues and administrators will see. We've incorporated text that frames our civic data partnerships in the context of our local goals and target audiences in internal presentations about our work to colleagues, in project proposals and charters, and in letters of support.

Playing Distinct Roles

While commonalities in missions and goals provide a valuable starting point for collaboration, differences are equally critical. We believe strong teams have a variety of perspectives and skills, connect to different audiences, and access diverse resources. With our collaboration in Pittsburgh, our team brings together backgrounds and skills in digital libraries, GIS, data management, preservation, metadata creation, and community outreach. Each partner reaches a different audience and has access to different physical spaces.

We pool our resources with the common aim of helping people find, use, and apply civic information about the Pittsburgh region. The roles of the academic and the public library have been distinct in this collaboration; the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s work has focused on increasing awareness of and access to WPRDC data throughout the community while simultaneously offering opportunities for data literacy learning across all age groups, and the University Library System at Pitt has worked closely with the WPRDC on metadata and data management. The roles that other public and academic libraries play in other civic data ecosystem will likely look different, depending on the individual expertise of those involved and organizational goals.

Experiencing Mutual Benefits

Our collaboration in Pittsburgh has allowed each organization to develop capacity and to experience individual benefits. When the University Library System began working with the WPRDC, it was at a time when library was growing its data management services and extending expertise in metadata and vocabularies into a University-facing metadata service. By working with the WPRDC, University Library System team members built capacity in these areas, while providing guidance in selection of the data portal technology, data documentation, and overall advice and guidance. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has leveraged WPRDC’s data infrastructure to publish open Library data as a community partner. Because of the WPRDC’s legal and technical infrastructure, the CLP did not have to figure out how to publish data on its own. Additionally, high profile events such as Data Day, hosted by CLP in partnership with WPRDC, have been successful because they combine the perspectives, skills, and audiences of both our organizations as well as ULS and other partners within the larger civic tech and data ecosystem.

One of the core observations that informs the WPRDC work is that people don’t talk to each other about how they’re using data (or want to use it). Both libraries -- CLP in particular -- have helped to address this by providing space for users to come together to talk about civic data and how they have used data in practice. The WPRDC has a need for space to convene data users and providers and an interest in connecting users with one another; the libraries have space and core goals around facilitating access and use of information. The libraries’ relationship with the WPRDC has resulted in data and GIS-focused programming for libraries’ users and additional reach for the WPRDC. All of us are interested in fostering and growing our civic data community and have done so through a monthly Civic Technology and Open Data Roundtable meeting, which is used to build the capacity of and strengthen collaboration between organizations in our local civic technology and open data ecosystem.

Building Genuine Relationships

Writings on collaboration often cite trust, honest communication, and respect as key factors in effective collaborative relationships. From our experience, this is true and we’ve been fortunate to develop not only close working relationships, but also friendships within our team. (It also doesn’t hurt that our organizations are all physically close to one another -- though this might not be your circumstance.)

This level of trust doesn’t occur overnight, and it isn’t likely to happen through formal meetings or planning sessions alone. As you seek to start or strengthen an open data community, you can’t underestimate the value of low-stakes social events to help build weak ties among your peers. Events like Data Drinks in Pittsburgh and the Data + Donuts speaker series in Los Angeles can set the stage for people to get to know one another and create future collaborations. Don’t feel discouraged if your data ecosystem doesn't spring into being right away -- like all good things, cultivating strong partnerships take time.