Designing the 100 Questions for NYC: Panel Reflects on New Science of Questioning During Open Data Week

The panelists (from left to right): Brennan Lake (Cuebiq), Starling Childs (Citiesense), Adrienne Schmoeker (City of New York), Panthea Lee (Reboot), and Stefaan Verhulst (The GovLab)

The panelists (from left to right): Brennan Lake (Cuebiq), Starling Childs (Citiesense), Adrienne Schmoeker (City of New York), Panthea Lee (Reboot), and Stefaan Verhulst (The GovLab)

New Yorkers face many problems in their daily lives. Whether it’s public health or public transit, residents have many concerns about the place they call home. The question many policymakers face, then, is how to identify the most urgent issues for the public in an open, participatory manner and mobilize the resources needed to solve them.

On Tuesday, March 3, 2020, The GovLab and Reaktor facilitated a discussion aimed at tackling this need. As part of New York City Open Data Week 2020, running through March 7th, The GovLab’s Co-Founder and Chief Research and Development Officer Stefaan Verhulst moderated a panel and exercise to identify a new science and practice of formulating questions answerable through data science. Informed by The GovLab’s 100 Questions Initiative, the group also hoped to identify the most important questions for New York City whose answers can be found in data and data science.

Stefaan was joined by panelists Brennan Lake (Cuebiq), Starling Childs (Citiesense), Adrienne Schmoeker (City of New York) and Panthea Lee (Reboot). As data stewards of organizations representing the supply and demand sides of data usage, Brennan, Starling, and Adrienne, each provided a perspective on the need to develop a question-driven approach to open and private data use. Panthea provided her knowledge as a design-thinking and citizen engagement expert.

Toward a New Methodology

Stefaan opened the discussion by asking the panelists how they currently engage with users, acknowledging that a question-driven approach means being demand driven. Though working in different contexts with very different audiences, each panelist spoke about the need to empower local communities and promote broader usage of open and private data.

“It is really important for us to create impact locally. We started our data philanthropy effort because there are [data] use cases that touch everyone,” said Brennan Lake in reference to Cuebiq’s Data for Good program. “Still, most of the response we’ve gotten has come from researchers. That’s great but this data is coming from millions of users who need to have a say in how their data is used.”

Starling Childs, in his discussion of Citiesense’s neighborhood analytics offerings, echoed these points. “It’s important to respond to the contexts of the communities we serve. We’re providing the platform to help improve the quality of life for the people who live and work there.”

At the same time, panelists emphasized that a demand-driven approach isn’t the same as expecting the public to do all the work. Organizations need to think about what they can do and how they can coordinate mass action in ways that provide value.

“One of the biggest misconceptions around user-centered design is that we should ask the user what they want and ask the user to decide everything,” said Panthea, Reboot’s executive director. “When it comes to defining the right questions, I think about where we are already collecting residents’ needs and questions so we are not going back to the same places over and over. I think about what questions we are best equipped to solve and answer to make people’s lives better.”

Adrienne Schmoeker, New York City’s Deputy Chief Analytics Officer, made a similar point in reference to her work on the city’s open data platform. “Just as there’s no such thing as the perfect dataset, there aren’t always perfect questions either. It can often take us a month, two months to scope down the question we are trying to answer. […] We would like to compel New Yorkers to identify the questions that are most important to them, prioritize them, and find a productive channel to communicate back.”

The panel ended with a conversation about how the different organizations represented ensure their work with open and private-sector data feeds into actions that improves lives. Again, the participants noted the need to think about organizational interests and the interests of the audience.

“A good place to start is checking what your special interests are, what your motives are, to ensure that what you provide is going to add value and not just noise,” said Brennan.

“I think it can be really irresponsible to start projects around questions or problems that we do not have the ability to solve or really don’t want to solve,” noted Panthea. “Many projects get stuck in implementation because we haven’t told citizens what is within boundaries, what is in jurisdiction. […] There’s risk of getting people’s hopes up.”

Identifying 100 Questions for New York City

The GovLab's Andrew Young leading one of the breakout sessions

The GovLab’s Andrew Young leading one of the breakout sessions

Following this discussion and a brief segment for audience questions, the event moved into its second phase. The GovLab and Reaktor invited attendees to participate in a small-group ideation effort to develop a strategy for creating a version of The 100 Questions Initiative for New York City.

The groups discussed how topic domains could be identified and prioritized; how New Yorkers might be best engaged; and how any work done might move insight to action. There were many ideas raised through the exercise drawn from the participants’ diverse backgrounds and experiences working with open and private-sector data. Still, several ideas came up frequently.

In trying to identify domains to address, participants often called attention to both bottom-up and top-down mechanisms that New York City already has. They noted that existing channels, such as 311 (a prominent asset for data collection), could be connected with resources meant for question formulation. Many people also discussed the need to work in areas where there is a clear mandate.

On engaging New York City residents, individuals noted the need to engage those groups that coordinate individuals instead of trying to create new communities. They also noted the need to do specialized outreach to underrepresented groups — whether they be the elderly, the undocumented, or the impoverished — to ensure their concerns are not forgotten. Some of this work bringing people together could be done through special events, such as hackathons or citizen assemblies or through online platforms for closed-loop feedback.

Finally, on translating insight to action, participants spoke frequently about the need for awareness upfront of resource constraints. Organizations do not have infinite capacity and often face financial restrictions, have limited political capital, or are constrained by something as small as when a project falls in the calendar year. By understanding these facets, organizations can produce impactful work that helps the public.

Next Steps

As the discussion suggests, there is real interest in New York City around a new, question-driven methodology. Through its research on The 100 Questions Initiative, The GovLab will continue to develop this approach so the city can provide meaningful data solutions to the issues residents face.

Information on this work can be found at The 100 Questions Initiative website (http://www.the100questions.org/). There, individuals can participate in prioritizing issues by voting on questions related to migration. They can also learn about the cohorts of bilinguals, people who have a clear understanding of a problem area as well as an understanding of what data means to it and how it can be used.

Individuals interested in doing more around The 100 Questions Initiative can contact Stefaan at [email protected].