Public Engagement

Government agencies have an opportunity to develop communities of practice around open data that include stakeholders both within and outside of government. By engaging with user communities government agencies can gain valuable insights into data use.  Some best practices:

Use a range of approaches to identify user communities and measure data use. Most federal agencies do not know exactly who their data users are or how they are using their data. Systems for tracking Application Programming Interface (API) usage can be helpful if they can be implemented without impinging on users’ privacy. Web analytics and demographic analysis can also provide insight into open data users. At the same time, metrics to assess the use of open data can help show how effectively agencies’ and researchers’ data is being used and can help agencies prioritize the value of different datasets.

Consider using citizen science approaches for research initiatives. A recent journal article published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines citizen science as “public participation in scientific research projects, usually by volunteers who collaborate with scientists and researchers to increase scientific knowledge.” It relies on sharing data between scientists and the public. For example, the longest-running citizen science program, the Audubon Bird Count, has engaged the public in conducting surveys of bird populations since 1905. Another citizen science project, the Zombee Project, enables citizens to report where and when they see a “zombee,” a bumble bee that has been infected by a parasite and flies erratically until it dies.

Over the past few years, the National Science Foundation has funded SciStarter, a centralized website that helps volunteers find citizen science opportunities near them and helps them register to participate in multiple projects. SciStarter is described as: “The place to find, join, and contribute to science through more than 1600 formal and informal research projects, events and tools. Our database of citizen science projects enables discovery, organization, and greater participation in science.”

Explore using civic hackathons and challenges. For several years, the federal government has used civic hackathons and challenges to spark innovation. The National Day of Civic Hacking serves as an occasion for government experts to engage with the public to address problems they hope will have data-driven solutions. In addition, many government agencies have hosted hackathons and challenges around topical issues. The agencies release key datasets in an accessible and usable form, invite the public to use the data for a particular public purpose, and award and publicize the best solutions. Recent examples include the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Opioid Code-a-Thon and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Innovation Challenge. is a useful resource for those interested in learning about current and previous hackathons and challenges hosted across the federal government. Launched in 2010, the website includes "a listing of challenge and prize competitions, all of which are run by more than 102 agencies across federal government.” More than 830 challenges have been listed on the site and federal agencies have offered more than $250 million in rewards for these challenges to date.


Featured Examples