User Experience Insights for Open Data - Citizen Survey

At Socrata we love data, not just the data that lives in our products but also the data about our products and the data about the people who use our products (or in this case, the people who could use them). If you're interested in this data and our user experience research efforts at Socrata, read on. 

Study Details
In July 2015, we sent out a survey to representative citizens with the goal of systematically assessing their needs for open data solutions and to learn about their current experiences in answering their questions about public services. Specifically, we wanted to know: What kinds of questions do citizens have about public services? Are citizens successful at finding the answers? And can open data help citizens answer those questions?
Our goal was to hear from over 100 citizens, and in the end we had responses from 117 participants. Requirements for participating included an interest or need for information about public services and the ability to articulate a question about a public service. If you would like to explore the demographics more check out our Data Lens.
So what did we learn? Lots!
But before we dive into the results, here's a quick note about the validity of user experience research data: In order to conduct valid and representative UX research efforts we apply standardized qualitative research methods, we interpret values as approximations, and we triangulate our insights across various methods and sources. More details here.

Citizens need more access to open data
We asked citizens to tell us about a recent question they had about a public service, for which they sought out an answer to
Before we dig into the nature of those questions, let's dig into the opportunity space for open data. We asked participants,
Were you able to find an adequate answer to your question?
Only 60% of participants said yes, meaning that nearly half of our participants were unsuccessful in answering their questions about a public service. But would citizens use data to answer their questions? We learned that about 10% of our participants never look at data, tables or charts to answer questions for personal or professional reasons. Despite that, when we asked participants,
Would you be willing to explore data, tables, or charts in order to get answers to your question?
over 80% said yes. These responses confirm the need and potential value for more access to open data for citizens. 

Open data can help answer the majority of citizen's questions
We looked at each question and categorized it based on whether data could be used to answer that question. We learned that the vast majority of questions, about 85%, can be answered, or supplemented, with open data. 
Specifically, half of all questions could be answered with a table, chart, map or other visualization. An example from the study is, “What are the crime rates in my neighborhood?” 
About a third could be answered with data but required some additional context or narrative (referred to as 'some' in this chart). An example from the study was, “What are the pros and cons of consumer recycling in NYC.” 
For a small percentage, the questions most likely wouldn’t be answered through open data. These tended to be more tactical like looking for contact info or operating hours. We believe this represents information that is already easily accessible on many government websites. 
So what does this tell us? While open data can play an integral role in answering citizen's questions, a significant chunk require richer and more contextual information to supplement the data. This supports the need for a storytelling or reporting solution, which we are actively working on.  

Citizens are most commonly interested in education, transportation, social services, and public safety.
Our hypothesis was that the 5 most common categories of public service information would be transportation, education, public safety, finance, and health.
Something that surprised us was the prevalence of questions about social services, which was actually one of the top three categories.  

Citizens go beyond asking questions that sound like 'what' and 'why'. 
Our expectation was that citizen's questions would typically sound like, "What are the [school ratings/crime rates/traffic patterns] in my area?" and "Why?" It turns out that these two categories of questions only accounted for about half of all of our participant's questions. Every question could be categorized into one of five categories.
The first category is Tell me a rate or state. This category represented the majority of questions that our participants had about a public service, at nearly a half. An example of this question is, 
"Which schools showed the best performance on tests?" - A teacher in Charleston, West Virginia. 
Once a citizen learns a rate or state, the next logical question is 'why?' Tell me why the rate or state is the way it is? This represented about 10% of the questions. An example of this question is,
“Why was there an increase in taxes?” - A small business owner in Toledo, Ohio
The third category of question up levels the conversation: Help me understand the service as a whole. This represented 10% of the questions. An example is,
“Who makes up public health policies?” - A business owner in Brooklyn, NY.
When a citizen has insight about a rate or state, why it is the way it is, and how it works, the next logical question is, what is being done about this? Or, Tell me about an initiative. This represented 15% of the questions. The example here is,
“What is being done to lower crime.” - A student in San Bernardino California. 
The final category of questions is Tell me about an opportunity. This question represented about a quarter of all questions (wow!). It included learning about how to participate or contribute to a service. The example here is,
“Where are summer school lunches being administered for kids?” - A 3rd grade teacher in Warner Robins, Georgia.
Another great example of this category was, "Where can I volunteer this weekend?”
So, what do these five categories of questions tell us? One thing is that they can serve as a framework for designing a more seamless user journey. For example, once a user finds a rate or state, let's ensure that they can continue down the journey to answer all four other questions without experiencing dead ends in the user experience.
Another thing is that these categories remind us that open data is not just made up of values that are numbers and statistics and the details around them. Open data can also be made up of more qualitative and futuristic values like service details, dates, and locations, as well as future events. These would require different treatments and visualizations. 

In summary...
From this research we can suggest that nearly half of citizen's questions about public services are going unanswered. Most of the questions citizens have (about 80%) can be answered or supplemented by open data, and most citizens (about 85%) are willing to explore data, tables, and charts to answer their questions.
Many of us who work with open data are passionate about the space. We've heard from our customers that one of their biggest challenges is getting more departments to participate in their open data programs. We hope that Socrata customers can share some of these insights with their partnering departments to show the value of open data and to help increase participation in the programs.
We can also use these insights to help tailor our open data experiences to be more representative of the needs of citizens and more successful for citizens. Some examples include removing dead-ends in the user experience and providing more visualizations that represent the categories of questions. 
What other outcomes would you like to see from this data? If you'd like to play around with the data yourself check out our Data Lens. Send us your feedback and questions or collaborate with us in future research. We look forward to hearing from you.
You can reach me at
-Tira Schwartz, Principal UX Researcher