Performative Data: Cultures of Government Data Practice

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Abstract / Description of output

Most of the current academic literature on open data looks outward at the data’s reuse by the public. This article describes, rather, the cultural practice of open data inside city governments. Hand-in-hand with the launch of open data policies, city governments have embraced data analytics to track performance, set goals, justify budget expenditures, direct public services, and represent their work to the public. Through an increased need to data-fy, or to transform records or actions into digital data, staff consider the analytical possibilities of existing administrative records both as economic evidence of government activities and also reusable assets with statistical and machine-actionable functions. These data practices provide legitimized way for municipal governments to know and govern the city and manage its resources. Here, we contend local governments’ data practices as performative acts; they help the city perform aspects of its functions and values such as accountability, transparency, and democratic participation.

For evidence of this shift, the authors draw on an in-depth empirical study of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) from 2013 to 2018. This research entailed participant observations, field visits, and interviews with city staff to describe the largely invisible cultural processes and technical work that produce and use DCA’s administrative datasets. In the analysis of these observations, the authors describe three aspects of the datafication of records within the department: 1) producing economic data to evaluate government program output and to perform effective usage and investment of government resources; 2) aggregating and mapping programmatic data with community wellbeing indicators to identify gaps in services and enact equity; 3) engaging with the public using government data to spur dialogs and ideas and demonstrate the democratic value of participation in collaboratively designing a service delivery ecosystem. The article contributes to the much-needed understanding of how governments are adapting managerial, analytic, and public engagement practices in an increasingly data-driven society.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Cultural Analytics
Publication statusPublished - 13 Aug 2019


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