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EGENIS seminar series: "Using open data to define problems: How residents, policymakers, and engineers approach open government data" Dr Caitlin Donahue Wylie (Virginia University)

Egenis seminar series

Making a city’s data publicly available online can serve the democratic ideal of transparency. Advocates argue that open civic data can equip stakeholders to achieve such lofty goals as supervising their government, identifying social problems, making evidence-based arguments for reform and social justice, and designing tailored solutions and research projects. As a result of this variety of uses, open data brings together several stakeholder groups, such as residents, elected officials and government staff, and engineering researchers. How these groups understand, interpret, and apply the same datasets offers a valuable comparison between their values, beliefs about knowledge, and conceptions of public good. Understanding these groups’ different epistemic approaches to data is crucial for identifying factors that influence whether and how users succeed in transforming open data into knowledge.

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Based on participant observation with engineers, policymakers, and residents during the first two years of an open data portal in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA, I argue that one fundamental factor is how each group defines a sociotechnical problem. Their mindsets and practices of problem definition direct how they think about and work with open data. Specifically, residents identify problems based on their individual lived experiences in Charlottesville, which they want the open data to illustrate. Government workers perceive problems as community-level issues that require a solution, and they want the open data to inform specific policy decisions. Charlottesville is also home to the University of Virginia, whose engineering professors design research problems that enable the development of innovative technologies worthy of publication and funding. For example, they want the open data to justify the need for their research about “smart” cities, such as transforming Charlottesville into a testbed for experiments with autonomous vehicles. Thus, I suggest that understanding how users conceptualize sociotechnical problems should be a first step in designing open data policies and systems.


Byrne House