Open Hamilton

Case study: Nashville, Tennessee

Metro Nashville proves that a sustainable open data initiative is possible after an administration change.

The government issued an open data executive order in May 2014 under then-Mayor Karl Dean. Since Megan Barry succeeded Dean the following year, the government has been taking stock of lessons learned and is retooling its open data strategy.

Metro Ideas Project spoke with Keith Durbin, chief information officer, about this transition and Nashville’s commitment to its open data policy.

Under Dean, the mayor’s office recognized that open data was becoming a new norm for local governments and decided to join a national conversation on government transparency and accountability.


Efforts to formalize an open data policy gained traction with the hiring of Yiaway Yeh as chief innovation officer in 2013. Together with Durbin, Yeh began formulating an open data policy for the metropolitan government.

Nashville launched an “Ideas to Reality” program in 2013. The program grouped a team of employees to research best practices and investigate the data needs of government, businesses and the public. Personnel from Information Technology Services, the Planning Department and Finance Department participated in the 10-week program. After submitting its recommendations, the group formed an informal steering committee, which spent almost a year designing the program.

Yeh and Durbin proposed an open data policy that was formalized in a 2014 executive order. The order states that open data should:

  • Foster an open, transparent and accessible government
  • Seek opportunities for economic development, commerce, increased investment and civic engagement
  • Reduce duplication of services

The executive order outlined reporting and oversight responsibilities for the open data portal:

  • Each department designates a data coordinator who serves on a data management team
  • The data management team assists ITS and the mayor’s office of innovation to establish publishing standards
  • Each department head creates a catalog of all available datasets
  • The department head consults with legal and tech personnel to determine whether a dataset is appropriate for public release


ITS was responsible for creating and maintaining the Socrata open data portal. The steering committee provided suggestions on which datasets to release to the public. The committee based its suggestions on national reporting standards, requests from the Code for America for Nashville civic hacker brigade and proven needs.

For example, the committee suggested that frequently requested information on code violations and permit requests be included on the portal. The committee also required departments to provide properly documented metadata to help users and developers understand dataset components, their lifespan and contacts within the government.

A cross-government data management team, calling itself the Data Geek Network, conducted monthly meetings to review best practices and prompt community discussions.

Government departments showed varying levels of support for the initiative. For example, the Codes Department was eager to offer code violations and permit requests datasets. But other departments only offered datasets that listed addresses of departmental sites.

Since implementation, the steering committee meets monthly to review data requests to determine whether specific datasets should be published. The committee also played an important role in bridging the gap between administrations and ensuring that the open data process was transferred.

Nashville’s open data platform launched September 2014. The portal currently hosts around 80 public datasets. Its government employee salary list is the most visited dataset with more than 31,000 pageviews. The online portal also features a suggestion page where citizens can request specific datasets be made available.


The initiative’s only cost stems from a contract with Socrata, which provides the open data portal software. The initial cost was $75,000. No new staff was added at the outset. Existing staff absorbed the new responsibilities.


Here are some ways government, media and developers have used the open data portal.

The data management team, which includes personnel from participating departments, have found opportunities for collaboration. The education and police departments began looking at shared data for predictive indicators to address school truancy.

A reporter from Nashville Public Radio regularly reviews the data portal to look for story leads. Earlier this year he used domesticated chicken permit data to spot a waning urban chicken fad in Nashville.

A member of Code for Nashville used open data to create an app that reports the distance of a home or apartment building from a fire station. Rental insurance agents sometimes require this information before writing policies.


Here are some of the challenges faced during implementation.

Some staff feared the implications of open data. They felt it would expose departments to criticism. The fear is understandable because government data moved from a private to public good. But proponents worked to inform departments of the intended benefits and used language meant to reassure rather than alarm.

Departments had varying levels of commitment to monthly data management team meetings. These meetings were critical to moving the data policy forward and training employees on the data cataloging system. Invitations were extended to 58 departments, agencies and semi-autonomous authorities. However, participation was mixed. Many semi-autonomous authorities refused to attend. The lesson here was that without a clear, immediate benefit to an agency, busy staff members were able to shift their attention elsewhere.

Open data priorities fell when staff members had multiple responsibilities. Metro Nashville recognized this problem and decided to hire a chief data officer to provide guidance and momentum for the open data program.

Lessons learned

Here are some of the lessons learned from implementation.

Executive support is vital to sustaining open data. With the arrival of a new chief data officer, executive support from Barry’s administration has been critical in ensuring that existing datasets continue to be updated.

Departmental understanding and buy-in are essential. Bringing employees from different departments together helps promote collaboration, improves buy-in and clears up misunderstandings about the role of open data.

Open data needs to be tied to other initiatives. On its own, open data may be perceived as a value add. When it’s tied to other initiatives, the public and government better understand its utility.

Open data needs dedicated funding and staff. With existing staff’s other responsibilities, open data could fall in priority. Metro hired a chief data officer this year to help lead the open data initiative and develop a business case for additional assistance and analysis opportunities.

Steps forward

After the chief data officer came on board, Metro Nashville planned to restrategize the direction of its open data program. This includes a review and update of the initial executive order, reorganization of monthly data management team meetings, and development of a business case for the fiscal 2018 budget cycle based on data analytics.

The mayor’s office is working to implement a performance management initiative that will include publicly available metrics on department progress through performance management and open data platforms.

Finally, the mayor’s advisory group on Smart City strategy, Connected Nashville, is working toward a Metro strategy on addressing community objectives with technology and data. That report is due for release in the first quarter of 2017 and will include technical standards and vendor requirements for open data.

Jacqueline Homann

Policy research director

Jacqueline Homann has worked at a number of international and federal institutions. She is a graduate of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and holds an M.A. in policy studies.