Skip to main content

Open for (Data) Business

Image courtesy of the Internet
Sharing lessons learned from launching and marketing an Open Data portal, and pondering the similarities with struggles when I opened a business.

Disclaimer: All of the ideas expressed in this article are my personal statements and opinions, and do not reflect the opinions/statements of the City of Urbana.

When we launched our Open Data site on February 23, I was hopeful that it would grab our citizens’ attention and that usage would launch like a rocket.

Well that didn’t happen.

Instead, I found out that launching our Open Data site was only an incremental milestone for a larger effort.   This is not “Field of Dreams”… if you build it, they don’t automatically come.
For me, this was a familiar feeling.  In 2009 I made a career shift and pursued a passion – I took over the operation of our local one-screen Art House movie theater.  Months of intense planning and preparation led up to my opening day on January 1, 2010.  On that morning, I put out the lobby ropes and nicely arranged the hundreds of bags of flavored popcorn I’d ordered.    Alas, the twenty people who showed up didn’t need the ropes - and didn’t buy the food.  It was then I realized that it was going to be more work than I thought.

So with Open Data, as with business, opening your doors is when the marketing and outreach efforts begin

With the movie theater, I experimented with many types of advertising.  The effectiveness of any medium is definitely related to what your message is, and who you’re trying to reach.  Advertising a movie theater, which has a smaller number of frequent customers, is different from a car dealership, with a larger pool of one-time customers.

Over time, I learned that marketing an Art House theater to the general public for new customers was mostly a waste of money – I was better off communicating with my existing customers and using “word of mouth” as a way to get new people.  This was a slow process, but it was also cheap; thanks to social media and e-mail lists, I could do this at the cost of a few hundred dollars (but also a few hundred hours!!!)   On the other hand, car dealerships?  Well, you know what they do.  Anything to get your attention and get you to walk on the lot.

So how do you advertise Open Data?  Well, it’s not much different from any other kind of advertising.  First you need to figure out a few things:

Who is your customer?

In our case, our primary target for Open Data is our own City employees.  Department and division managers who want insight into their finances or their data.  Public users are a secondary, but also important group.  But “the public” is too broad of a category, so I sub-divide it mentally as “Council Members”, “FOIA requesters”, “Active Community members”, “Students doing research”, etc.  (FYI - When I advertised the movie theater, I had similar categories in my mind for my marketing: “Hipsters,” “Seniors,” and “Boomers with grown kids”.)  Each group has different desires, and responds differently to various modes of communication.

What is your message?

People have short attention spans.  You need a message that punches through and grabs them – especially for something as esoteric as Open Data.  We’re still refining our messages, and we have different ones for different audiences.  For example “You can know how much many you have left in your budget lines” (for City employees) and “You can analyze police activity and quantify the results” (for “Active Community Members”).  Don’t be afraid to tweak your message over time.  My early movie theater ads used phrases like “Movies you’ll talk about”.  (Ugh!)   Later we tried “The true independent theater for movie lovers” and eventually we settled on “A classic movie experience”.    As needed, we also used tag lines like “Did we mention we serve beer?”

How will you convey your message to your customers? 

This is probably the hardest of all.  In business, you have lots of (costly) options: TV, radio, print, web ads, etc.   Since our Open Data site has no marketing budget, we have undertaken every kind of free publicity we can get.  Social media, mainstream media (newspaper and TV news), TV shows, our web site, and anything else we can think of.   Making this more difficult is that different categories of customers may see only one of these or another.    To stereotype: Millennials rarely read printed newspapers or listen to talk radio, while seniors may not subscribe to Social Media feeds.  Figure out who you’re trying to reach – and know that you’re going to need to use multiple modes to reach them all!

The best, and hardest, way to do it

In the end, the most effective, but inefficient, method is still one-on-one selling.  Much like I used to be a 24x7 ambassador for my theater (ready to give my “what’s playing this week” speech to anyone I run into at the grocery store), I’ve become a pitchman for Open Data… if you ask me about work these days, you’re going to hear about it!  So get some converts on your side, and encourage them to spread the word.

Along this path, the most successful marketing we’ve done was with our City employees.  We offered 30-minute “training classes” on our Open Data site, separately for financial and police data.  This allowed us to give our pitch to up to 12 people at a time.  It works because we can have the Open Data site on the screen and just say to someone “Sue… what part of your budget would you like to know about?” … and then perform that inquiry right in from of them based exactly on what they say.   (As a former software demonstrator, I can tell you that this is the BEST kind of demo there is!)
What else has worked for you?  Please add comments – or ask questions – below!

Here are our website links...Open Data:

Open Expenditures:

Popular posts from this blog

The Tectonic Speed of Government, Part 1: Procurement

This post is my reaction to conversations about how hard it is to create change in government, and how government projects (and IT projects in particular) take so long from genesis to completion. This is part 1, about procurement; part 2 will address project implementations . PS - there was a surprise Part 3 of this series later! Warning : what follows is an “inside baseball” discussion of government IT procurement. I’m not trying to dissuade you from reading it, but if you’re not enmeshed in this world you might want to consider reading my articles on lighter topics like organizing your electronic life , the greatness of Abbey Road , or the story behind The Room . If you ARE enmeshed in this topic, then please don’t overlook my call to action at the end! Changing the process will take a group effort, and I’m hoping to get feedback on my scheme to create a library of reusable software specifications. By the way, this post’s first title was “The Glacial Speed of Government” bu

The Tectonic Speed of Government, Part 4: Momentum This “Tectonic Speed” series is about why Government IT Projects take such a long time. The name refers to tectonic plates, rubbing against each other. No visible movement for a while then… CRACK! Government change is like that; it can take a long time to build, but when it happens it can be intense.  For more on that here is my 20:50 speech on this theme from the Code for America Summit 2020 , which turned into a virtual event. (I can tell you that it’s 20:50 because of the PechaKucha-ish format: 25 slides for 50 seconds each.) ************************************************************************** Disclaimer: All of the ideas expressed in this article are my personal statements and opinions, and do not reflect the opinions/statements of the City of Urbana. ************************************************************************** One impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is a shake-up of p

But First... Let Me Take a Selfie

Excel 3D Map of my drives home. Colors are waypoints and height is the trip duration. Read on to see what the hell this is. This piece began before the pandemic, but the use of our phones as tracking devices for contact tracing prompts tough questions about privacy and tracking that make this timelier than I expected. See the middle section for thoughts on this. *********************************************************************************************** Disclaimer: All of the ideas expressed in this article are my personal statements and opinions, and do not reflect the opinions/statements of the City of Urbana. *********************************************************************************************** “OK Google… Track Me All Day Long”  Google Location History logs your every move, every day – if you turn it on. (To their credit, it’s off by default.) It’s worth asking - why would anyone want to do this?  Well, I did it for a few years because I was curious about the r

Why the Tectonic Speed of Government?

The original name ("Glacial Speed of Government”) is both cliché and inaccurate, as it implies a faster pace than it used to. I decided that “Tectonic Speed” is more accurate because change in government shows tremendous resistance and moves slowly, but when it happens progress can occur in significant outbursts - and in those moments, there is great opportunity!     Click on "Read the Whole Thing" to access these links: Part 1 |  Part 2   |  Part 3  | Part 4 | Wait there's a Video?!  

How To Videos: Lucity Queries with Microsoft SQL Server and Excel

What follows is not a blog, but some suggestions on using Microsoft SQL Server "Views" to query your Lucity data using Excel.   This information is intended to assist Lucity software users, and not for any nefarious purposes. I recommend watching the videos in Full Screen view and with HD resolution.  They're not as blurry as they look on this page!!  Each of these about two minutes long, but the original actions only took 50 seconds each.  (After recording them, I decided to slow them down to make them more watchable.) 1. How to create a SQL Server "View".   The video shows how to create a new View from the core Work Order table.  (WKORDER - see the data dictionary here .)  The video first shows the simple method of creating a view with all fields, then shows the more effective method of including only needed fields, and re-labeling them with their on-screen names. Music: "A View to a Kill" - Duran Duran 2. How to Connect to the Vi