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OpenGov Voices: The keys to unlocking the power of justice system data

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By The Sunlight Foundation

Tracy Siska, founder and executive director of the Chicago Justice Project

Unleashing the power of justice data requires exploiting the interconnectedness of the justice system. All local justice agencies are part of an interdependent system that requires that they rely heavily on the other agencies within the system to achieve their goals. It is within this interconnectivity that the real power of justice system data lies. This, of course, is where most transparency efforts regarding justice data falter; they fail to understand the degree to which you need data from all the other justice agencies to truly understand the data from any single agency. I call this approach a “systems approach” to justice data transparency. This is how the Chicago Justice Project, an organization I founded and have been the executive director of for eight years, approaches justice data transparency in Chicago.

Naturally, this makes the efforts of transparency advocates exponentially more difficult because it requires the simultaneous fight for data from at least two agencies — if not four or five — at the same time. While drastically increasing the workload for advocates, this approach will pay huge dividends down the road in the form of a much more nuanced view of what is happening within the justice system. In the real world, the justice system is a multiagency interdependent system made up of agents with very wide discretion that routinely make quick decisions with less than perfect information. Our data transparency efforts must reflect the intricacies of this world — I believe the “systems approach” is the perfect way to do just that.

Here are three keys to successfully opening up your local justice system data through a systems approach rather than focusing on a single agency for your transparency efforts.

Subject-matter expert driven

The fears of the misuse of data from justice agencies are real and have to be accounted for in the planning stages of any advocacy campaigns. Unlike other government data, criminal justice data has great potential for generating public policy or justice policy changes when the data is made public. The public is quick to react to issues regarding crime and violence. Immoral politicians and justice officials all too often exploit this vulnerability to drive their personal agendas at the expense of the well-being of communities.

Including subject-matter experts in the leadership positions of your advocacy will go a long way to eliminate whatever legitimate fears justice officials have about releasing their data. These experts need to have the well-rounded understanding of the nuances of each justice agency’s data and have the humility to ask questions when they don’t know something. Understanding exactly what the data does and does not mean is essential.

(Photo credit: drpavloff/Flickr)

Help the entire justice community

There are countless special interests that make up the justice community within any city. These special interests often have perfectly opposing views from each other. One easy example would be the violence against women advocates and the local defense bar. It is vital for any transparency project seeking to be credible throughout the community to serve both these interests, and all of the other interests within the justice community, in their transparency efforts.

To serve these multiple interests simultaneously requires building each of them into the very fabric of all of transparency efforts from day one. Failure to do so will immediately generate ill will from some segment of the justice community, foment resistance to transparency and possibly create enemies — all of which will pose great problems for your transparency efforts.

How do you incorporate their interests? Creating an advisory board to gather input from the very early stages will go a long way to foster the kind of buy-in you want. Here at the Chicago Justice Project, we composed our community advisory board of more than a dozen members of the justice community from within months of receiving our initial funding. The members serve as a sounding board for our efforts and help us incorporate their interests into our transparency efforts.

Treat all justice agencies equally

While maintaining two or more simultaneous transparency campaigns targeting more than a single agency is extremely hard work, it plays a vital role in the success of the systems approach. When targeting a single agency, officials within that agency all too often grow resistant because they feel they are being singled out while other agencies are being ignored. You can completely eliminate these feelings from the start by focusing on the whole system rather than a single agency.


The last 12 months in America have provided plenty of examples that demonstrate a real need for better data on the activities of our justice system. Recently, this has spurred attempts to collect national data on police use-of-force and officer involved shootings. The collection of national data on these issues would be extremely helpful for accountability advocates; however, I think the real push needs to be on the collection of high quality, interconnected local data that can then be used to feed national research. It seems like current efforts, while incredibly well intentioned, have unfortunately skipped an important step by overlooking the need to create and support locally-based justice data advocates. It is these local advocates who can foster the kind of local justice data ecosystems that can provide the data needed to drive local, state, regional and national policy on justice issues. This progress can only come with reliable information derived from the data collected by all the local justice agencies in a jurisdiction, rather than just a single agency.

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at [email protected]

The Sunlight Foundation is a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that uses the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency, and provides new tools and resources for media and citizens, alike.


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