5 things to consider when doing a city data inventory

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Any city leader who’s keen to use data to drive smart decisions has faced the same problem before: They know a certain dataset must exist somewhere in City Hall’s computers. But where?

A growing number of cities are solving that problem by creating something called a data inventory. Essentially, it’s a list — or often, a spreadsheet — of all the datasets the city has. It also would typically include other key information like who owns the data, how frequently it’s updated, and whether there are privacy considerations associated with it.

A data inventory is a foundational piece of any effort to track and improve city performance over time. Having a detailed and comprehensive one is also a criterion for cities to achieve What Works Cities Certification for top-notch data practices. However, building a robust inventory — and keeping it up-to-date — can be challenging work, even in the most advanced cities.

To learn more, Bloomberg Cities spoke with Johns Hopkins University’s Sheila Dugan. She’s the Director of Cities at the Center for Government Excellence and recently led a highly popular training “sprint” for city leaders on how to conduct a data inventory. (GovEx also keeps a handy how-to guide here, along with real examples from cities.)

Dugan underlined that building and maintaining a data inventory is critical work for any city, requiring collaboration among personnel from every department. Here are five things she said city leaders should consider before they dive in.

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1. Relax. Tracking down all of City Hall’s data can be such a big job that the people leading it may find it overwhelming. Dugan’s advice: Pace yourself. “Think about doing the work in stages, especially if your city has never done it before,” she said. “Acknowledge that not everything is going to be done overnight.”

2. Communicate the “Why.” Conducting a data inventory isn’t one person’s job. It potentially requires cooperation of staff from across all city departments. Their willingness to share information on the datasets they manage can either make or break the effort. “Think critically about training and making sure people are fully aware of why the inventory is being conducted and how the information is going to be used,” Dugan said. Training also must be directed up to reach top managers and political leaders. “The executives need education, too, on how this work can support their priorities.”

3. Engage the public. While a data inventory serves internal management needs, it also can connect closely to “open data” efforts aimed at making more city data available to the public. One way to learn which datasets residents want released is to put the data inventory online and see what people request. “If you have an engaged community that regularly uses your data,” Dugan said, “then showing them your data inventory can help point you to datasets you may never have thought they would get value from.”

4. Include datasets with confidential information. It goes without saying that privacy is a major concern when it comes to how cities handle sensitive data. That’s no reason to hide the data’s existence, however. For the purposes of an inventory, datasets that include personal or confidential information absolutely should be included, Dugan said. They just need to be labeled accordingly. “It’s important to record that the dataset exists,” she said.

5. Be creative about how you collect information. For those tasked to build a data inventory, some of the work can be tedious — if you’ve ever had your head buried in a spreadsheet for any length of time, you know what it’s like. Dugan worked with one city that found a way to automate much of the data entry so that the humans only had to check it over for mistakes. “Don’t be afraid to be creative in the ways you’re gathering that information and distributing it to the public,” Dugan said. “Being ready to innovate is essential and important.”

The next round of cities to achieve What Works Cities Certification will be announced soon! Follow @BloombergCities and @WhatWorksCities on Twitter for the latest.

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program. bloombergcities.org

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