A member of Cleveland's civic tech and data collaborative reflects on their efforts to build a culture of leveraging data for social change, and shares key lessons from their work.

The Value of Civic Data

So many essential elements of civic life go unnoticed and without fanfare on the average day. Electricity moves through wires overhead powering lights, cooking, cooling and refrigeration. Water flows underground through pipes and into our homes. Last month, the water department began replacing the water main on my street. The replacement project has brought all the pipes that are usually underground to the surface, making visible the complex system that keeps the water flowing.

The Cleveland Civic Tech and Open Data Collaborative (the Collaborative) thinks that data and information are as critical to civic life as electricity and water. And just like electricity and water, the systems in place to help data flow aren’t always very visible. With the right information, cities can prioritize precious resources, for example, deciding where water mains most need replacing based on statistics on leaks. Many cities are seeing the benefits of wisely using information, kicking off “smart city” initiatives that often focus on improving or monitoring physical infrastructure and creating efficiencies, like reading water meters remotely.

Data as Civic Infrastructure

In the same way that we use data to examine characteristics, spot issues and guide work related to our physical infrastructure, we can use data and information to solve social problems. In some ways, we already do. In 2014, a collaboration between Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine, the City of Cleveland’s Department of Public Health, and the Cuyahoga County Board of Health, alongside other partners, made available census tract level data on health and social determinants of health, revealing astonishing disparities across neighborhoods. That same year, Cuyahoga County launched its Pay for Success initiative, using powerful integrated data linked across government departments to help reunite and house homeless families with children. Most recently the Cleveland and Cuyahoga County departments of health are working together with other community-based organizations, including some Collaborative members, under the BUILD Health Challenge. The goal of this project is to make information on housing characteristics that could affect health more readily accessible to doctors and families making decisions about where to live.

Thinking of data and information as infrastructure itself, powering the way we do things, is a recipe for success.

Thinking of data and information as infrastructure itself, powering the way we do things, is a recipe for success. In Northeast Ohio we have some great examples demonstrating the value of this approach, but we don’t consistently consider the infrastructure of data and how it is going to flow. The Collaborative aims to create a space in Northeast Ohio to support the approach of data as infrastructure for solving social problems. The Collaborative is made up of a diverse group of nonprofits, volunteer organizations, and local governments: the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development and the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland City Council’s Ward 14, Open Cleveland (Cleveland’s Code for America brigade), OpenNEO, the Cleveland City Planning Commission, Health Data Matters, the Cleveland Global Shapers, the Cleveland Co-Labs, and DigitalC. Together, the Collaborative aims to facilitate and encourage data sharing, illuminating the existing network of available data, data savvy analysts, and subject matter experts, and connecting and empowering civic-minded technologists.

Collaborating to Build a Culture of Data

But having the data and tech experts around the table is not enough. Community engagement is a crucial component in any effort to solve social problems. That means involving the community, from community-serving organizations to neighborhood residents, in defining the problem and outlining where systems are misaligned, as well as working alongside them to create solutions.

What does it look like to encourage the role of technology and data in solving social problems while maintaining the values of “with not for?” We don’t have all the answers, but know we need to work together, bringing in multiple voices and sets of values, to figure out what this looks like and collectively encourage institutions to adopt these approaches. As concerns about data breaches grow, it is especially important to engage the community in understanding the value of information sharing and how this can happen while protecting privacy.

What does it look like to encourage the role of technology and data in solving social problems while maintaining the values of “with not for”?

As one way of engaging the Cleveland community in these conversations, this past spring the Collaborative launched Data Days, with the tag line “ctrl + alt + CLE”. Hosted on the International Day of Open Data, this three day local conference provided hands-on technology and data training to community members, and created an opportunity to hear their perspectives on data and civic tech. We received reports from staff of high-level community leaders that the event sparked an understanding of the potential of data and tech in the civic sphere. Since then, we’ve been working on developing a collective vision for the Collaborative.

Key Takeaways

We think Northeast Ohio is ready to fully embrace the power of data and civic tech. From the experiences of the Collaborative over the past two years, we have the following key takeaways for other cities venturing into this space:

  • Building culture bottom-up. Coalitions of like-minded civic organizations can work together collaboratively to build a culture that values information and data sharing and data-driven decision making. If there is a lack of political will from the top down, diverse coalitions that work with local government can show the broad interest, value and potential in this work from the bottom-up.

  • Data is a crucial component of civic infrastructure. Whether it’s conducting a survey to understand the level of blight in a city, aligning data systems to organize and carry out demolition work, or monitoring infant mortality trends as a part of a cross-sector initiative, data is important to understanding need, aligning systems, and monitoring progress. Let’s treat it as such and approach community issues with an upfront consideration of the role of data.

  • Identify gaps in the ecosystem. Illuminating the existing data and civic tech ecosystem can enable you to build connections and fill in the gaps to meet community need. The Collaborative brings together a wealth of knowledge and experience from across its different partners, but firmly believes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And we’re still missing parts. We will continue to look at who’s at the table and who’s missing, reach out to engage missing partners, and find ways to fulfill unmet needs.

  • Community engagement is key. This is true even in the data and civic tech sphere, which may sometimes seem far removed from the grassroots community. We aim to ground our work in benefiting the most vulnerable in the community, and if we are to succeed in this, we need to carry out this work alongside the community.

Join Us!

Early this fall, we kicked off planning for our second iteration of Data Days coming in Spring 2018. In addition to hosting Data Days, in the next year we aim to advocate for open data policy, facilitate data sharing in the civic community, and learn and refine what it means to create community-engaged civic tech. Through the network formed by a collaboration of Living Cities, the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, and Code for America, we can learn and grow alongside other cities working in the same vein.

If you’re working on building or supporting an open data/civic tech ecosystem in another city, we’d love to hear from you. If you’re in Northeast Ohio, join us in our mission to make data and information as important to the way we run the civic sphere as water, and just as transparent.


Cleveland is a participating city in the Civic Tech and Data Collaborative, which harnesses the power of technology and data to make local governments and civic organizations more effective in meeting the pressing challenges of the 21st century. Led by three national organizations – Code for America, Living Cities, and the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership – the Collaborative is a two-year project that provides grants and technical assistance to seven urban communities around the country to improve civic tech and data ecosystems. Funding for this collaborative was made possible with support and partnership from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.