Understanding Community Data Needs

Libraries interested in getting involved in their local civic data ecosystem should consider tailoring their role and their actions to local conditions. Some of the local circumstances libraries may want to account for in structuring their role include community interests, civic priorities, resident aspirations, data and technology infrastructures, and the capacity of data and service providers. Adopting a demand-based focus for their civic data work will help libraries structure their role and their work to be relevant for people in the community, and align and coordinate efforts with other members of local civic data ecosystems.
The process of understanding community needs often starts with personal engagement, though we feel that it’s important to state that there is no one model or road map to follow to learn more about the data needs of people in your community. Your approach could take the form of documenting interests and needs through your library’s existing processes, programs, and interactions, such as recording data requests, or collecting feedback at training workshops. Be aware that not everyone hoping to work with data will come to you to talk about civic data, even if they’re already visiting the library. To engage people that aren’t already connected with your services, your library may also want to organize specific events and offer fun, engaging activities to learn more about how people and communities can benefit from civic data.
In this section of the guide, we present some ways that your library can learn more about community data needs organized around four key questions:

What data are people looking for?

  • If your library is providing data services, documenting the questions and requests can be one way to understand more about the kinds of data people are seeking.
  • If other members of your ecosystem are also sharing data, you might also want to ask them more about the datasets that are most-popular. Here in Pittsburgh, the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center’s Performance Management Dashboard allows people to see the most-frequently viewed and downloaded datasets.
  • Your library may also want to put-out a dataset suggestion box to capture data requests, or go over the top like a series of partners did in Philadelphia in 2017 under the OpenDataVote project. The partners designed an entire nomination and voting infrastructure for civic data, complete with a voting booth. The project team then worked with partners at the City of Philadelphia to make the most-popular dataset nominations available as open data. More information is available in the OpenDataVote guide and the project announcement.

How might people want to use data in your community?

  • If your library is already helping people find data, it can also ask them how they’re hoping to make use of it, and recording those details along with the data request.
  • In New York City, the NYC Planning Labs asked people to complete a prompt as part of the design process for an interactive version of New York City’s Zoning and Land Use Map. The prompt asked people to “fill in the blanks” on the following statement: “As a ____(type of user), I want _____(some goal), so that ___(some reason).” Asking people to complete a similar prompt and displaying the responses in the library can provide people with a look at how others in the community want to put civic data to use, and build momentum for making more data available.
  • Your library can even go a step further and organize a gathering where people can build a community interested in using data around a particular topic or domain. Several different formats for these gatherings are included in the Sunlight Foundation’s ROADMAP to Informed Communities.

How discoverable is your civic data?

  • One activity your library can organize to assess how easily people can find civic data in your community is a data scavenger hunt. In a data scavenger hunt, participants are tasked to answer several questions about their local community using publicly-accessible civic data. While the activity can be done remotely, structuring the data scavenger hunt as an in-person activity will enable event organizers to ask participants about their experience finding data at the conclusion of the event.
  • Another related activity could involve having members of your community design questions for a civic data trivia contest or scavenger hunt to be played at your library. Having members of the community contribute questions will enable you to see what data they may have been most discoverable and most-interesting. The trivia contest itself can also be a way to engage members of the community in a data conversation.
  • Your library may also want to organize or help conduct user or usability tests of available civic data tools. These tests are a valuable way of soliciting feedback about a users’ experience with an information tool or website. Participants in these tests are typically asked to perform a series of tasks, while a proctor observes and describes the participant’s experience. Results of these tests can be used to improve the quality of available data tools, and identify opportunities for training and other services that can help people find data more-easily. In 2013, the Smart Chicago Collaborative created the Civic User Testing Group as a model for conducting user tests of civic data tools, and the model has been deployed in Detroit and a number of other communities. The Federal Government’s usability.gov website also contains some valuable resources about conducting usability tests.

What literacies and software competencies are people looking to build

  • Libraries offer a great place to provide prompts that patrons can respond-to in order to share more about their data skills. Patrons can deposit a token in a jar, or add a sticker to a diagram to create a participatory data visualization activity. Several questions that can be used in these activities can include:
    • I use the internet most often at… using (device).
    • How confident do you feel in using data to tell a story?
    • The data tool I most want to learn how to use is…
  • A more-structured way to assess people’s skills and confidence when it comes to using data is through a formal survey. This information can be valuable in designing data literacy workshops and training classes.The survey instrument can be shared in general with people coming to the library, or on a more-focused audience, such as people requesting data services, or attendees of a workshop or training class. If your library needs a starting point, you’re welcome to adapt the satisfaction survey we share at our training workshops here in Pittsburgh.
  • When you can, it can also be very informative to have actual conversations with people about their skills and data literacies. These can be structured through formal focus groups, but it’s also possible to engage people after a training session or workshops, or when they look to library staff for help when using data. Organizing tabling activities with a data focus, or holding a public demonstration of a civic data tool in the library can also present an opportunity to have a conversation about data needs.