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Data Tool Kit - Data Engagement Handbook

Beyond transparency and accountability, the ultimate goal of open government is to empower citizens by providing them with data in a meaningful context.

What Is Data Engagement?

Data engagement is the concept of taking open data beyond the portal, using it to engage stakeholders across many contexts and improve their lives through better service delivery.

Why is Data Engagement important?

The idea of providing open access to data in a way that engages the public is rapidly changing from something that would be nice to have to an essential element for success.

The potential users of your open data are many; public consumers, knowledge workers in other organizations, and developers and entrepreneurs. With a broad landscape of potential users and uses, it’s vital to think beyond the download, and consider “openness” in the context of other delivery mechanisms to serve engagement.

How To Implement The Data Engagement Process

The Guide to Tactical Data Engagement establishes a four-step method for public officials to utilize in order to help residents make an impact in their community using open data. This guide is designed for public servants who want to work with community actors to get more value out of open data and information.

How To Host A Datathon Or Hackathon

Before we dive into how one hosts a datathon or hackathon style event, let's begin by defining what they are. Both events gather subject matter experts and folks with data science skills in a collaborative capacity and ask them to solve problems.

Datathons tend to involve more discussion about the question(s) at hand and the data available to answer them; questions may need to be refined and data found before participants can work on answering the questions with data. In the past, Water Board Datathons have also been called “Data Dives” and have been structured similar to a traditional workshop, but with a greater focus on data.

At Hackathons, participants use already defined questions or objectives and available data to build prototypes of analyses, visualizations, or interactive tools that answer refined questions. Generally speaking, and in ideal situations, both subject matter experts and data scientists are in attendance at both types of events, but there is usually a higher proportion of subject matter experts in attendance at datathons and a higher proportion of data scientists in attendance at hackathons. While the term “hackathon” can have negative connotations for some, in this context it is a portmanteau of the words "hack" and "marathon", where "hack" is used in the sense of exploratory, innovative, and creative problem solving, NOT its alternate meaning as a reference to negative interactions with computer programs or network security.

Previous Water Board Datathon or Hackathon engagement events include:

Although similar, there are distinct differences between Datathons and Hackathons:

Event Component Datathon Hackathon
Objectives Discuss the question(s) at hand and the data available to answer them. Begin to take concepts from a general brainstorming stage to specific, actionable tasks. Use already defined, discrete and specific questions and available data to build prototypes of analyses, visualizations, or interactive tools that answer refined questions.
Projects or Questions Can be broad (although the more specific they are, the better) Must be discrete, specific, and attainable within the time allotted.
Participants Mostly subject matter experts, some data scientists Mostly data scientists, some subject matter experts
The total number of participants for an event depends on meeting space and other resources. However, if you have groups working on different questions for your event, we recommend somewhere around 5 - 8 individuals per group.
Data Organizers and participants should have an understanding of what is available and where it is. The more you know before the event, the better.  Organizers and participants must know which sources are available and relevant to the questions or tasks at hand. Ideally, datasets are collected and available to participants before or at the beginning of the event.
Deliverables The ideal final product may not be known, but you should have some understanding of what you want to get out of participants by the end of the event. Examples include:
  • List of prioritized questions
  • List of available datasets
  • List of data gaps
  • List of research needs
  • Plan for next steps
  • Analysis or visualization
Some description of the ideal final product must be provided. Small details may change through development, but participants must know exactly what you want them to build or work on during the event. Examples include:
  • Analysis or visualization
  • Interactive Application or Tool
  • Product prototype
  • GitHub or Website update
Length 1 day is usually sufficient, depending on the event objectives. 1 day can work, but a 2-day event enables participants to dig into the project and develop more sophisticated prototypes.
Regardless of the type of event, remember that about half of the time will be taken up by introductions, defining group objectives, breaks/lunch, and developing whatever products they need to report out what they have accomplished during the event. So, if you have a 2-day event with both days starting at 9am and ending at 4pm (7 hours/day), expect 1 - 2 hours to be taken up by introductions and brainstorming on day one, 2 hours (1 hour/day) to be taken by lunch breaks, 1 hour to be taken up by recapping day one progress and planning for day two, 3 hours to be used for development of a presentation. That leaves 6 hours (3 hours/ day) for participants to actually work on the project, which is not very much time to build a prototype from start to finish.

Project Development

A project can be comprised of a single question or objective, or it can be comprised of a suite of questions or objectives that relate to a specific topic. We have found that providing a suite of questions or objectives allows participants to select a question or objective that is interesting to them and fits with their skillset.

Defining project objectives and articulating what questions you have and what products you would like to see developed takes time and usually requires many rounds of revision, so the questions are refined and specific enough for the event. Questions or objectives should be as refined as possible so participants can tackle discrete, “bite sized” tasks within the allotted event time. Invest as much time as you can into this process early on - you will be glad you did later.

If you are having trouble articulating what, exactly, you want out of the event in general and individual projects specifically, try working through the Healthy Watershed Partnership’s resources on Development of Goals, Objectives, and Expected Outcomes. They even have a worksheet that will guide you through the process!

It’s a good idea to have a handful of projects defined and ready to go for the event, but it is also important to be flexible on the day of. The people in the room, and their skill sets, will determine which projects and questions are popular and what can be accomplished during the event.


Lock these in as early as possible. Be sure the venue can support or provide:

  • Enough seating for participants to be comfortable.
  • Power. If technology is the focus of your event, be sure there are enough outlets, power strips, etc. for your participants
  • WiFi. It makes life easier for everyone.
  • Projector(s). For presenting to the whole group, displaying content and reminders throughout the event, and reporting out at the end of the event.
  • White Boards or flip charts. Sometimes pen to paper is the best way to get ideas flowing. Even if it is a technology focused event, try to also provide space and resources to support this type of brainstorming.

Date & Time

Be sure to select a date that not only works for you but will also enable target participant groups to participate. For example, if you want students from a local university to attend and to provide data science support (which is highly recommended), don’t host your event during the first or last week of classes. If you want members of the community to attend, try hosting the event outside of business hours.

Be sure to give yourself enough time before and after the event to set up and break down equipment in the event space, as needed. Also consider commute times. Consider starting the event at 9:30 am and ending at 3:00 pm or 4:00 pm rather than starting at 8:00 am sharp and going until 6:00 pm.


If you can get a sponsor to pay for food and drinks and a venue that allows it - do it! These sorts of events can be super intense and providing food and some form of caffeine is usually greatly appreciated. Without food and drinks on site, participants will likely leave during breaks to get refreshments and lunch and may or may not come back. Having everything in one place improves morale and keeps participants on site and more likely to work on their project over breaks.


As soon as you have the time, date, and location locked in, and some idea of the type of event you will be hosting (datathon vs hackathon, project topics), build a registration form and save the date.


  • If this is event is open to the public and you want lots of people to participate, we recommend using a publicly facing and searchable registration platform, such as Eventbrite (See the Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program [SWAMP] Eventbrite page for examples of upcoming and past Eventbrite registration forms).
  • If the event is internal or an invite-only event, restrict who can see and access the registration form. Previous Water Board Datathon events have used Google Forms to do this since you can restrict the users to those who click on the direct link.
  • You can have participants RSVP via email, but that tends to take up lots of valuable planning time.

Save The Date

  • Create a flyer for the event that contains a brief (bulleted if possible) summary of the event, some catchy photos or other forms of event branding, and instructions for and links to the registration form. Save the flyer as a PDF so the links are clickable.
  • The flyer can be posted online, distributed to specific email lists, listservs, Slack channels (see below), etc.
  • If you need help advertising your data engagement event, please contact

Ground Rules

While a complete code of conduct may seem excessive for a small data engagement event, we do recommend having, at the bare minimum, some ground rules for participants. These ground rules set norms and serve as a reminder of the spirit of the event - one that is open (in data and thinking), collaborative, innovative, and kind.

Example Ground Rules:

  • Be Respectful. Be Constructive. Be Creative. (used in previous Water Board data engagement events)
  • Be respectful. Be thoughtful. Be open. Be awesome.(Hackbright Academy)
  • Use The Pac-Man Rule to encourage new people to join groups!

Project Team Development

You can have participants sign up for a project before the event through the registration process or you can have people show up and select a topic. One way is not necessarily better than the other, it all depends on how much time you have to prepare and what you want to get out of the event.

Split large groups (i.e. 10 individuals or greater per group) into sub-groups. You could have them work on different pieces of the overall project or, if there is really only one thing to do, you could have each sub-group work on their own solutions to the problem and see how the methods and products are similar or different at the end of the event.

Facilitation Resources

Process Agenda: A process agenda is a tool that helps with planning and implementing events. It helps you think about and plan for all of the details and moving pieces that go into planning an event, such as detailed objectives, responsibilities, timing and identification of activities and supplies. There are a couple different flavors of the process agenda

  • Event Logistics Process Agenda - this type of process agenda walks the event and project facilitators through the event itself (think agenda with details on item objectives and responsibilities).

Facilitator Worksheet: Provide a worksheet to facilitators that gives them guidance and reminders they can refer to throughout the day. This will help them stay on track and only reach out to you if additional questions arise.

Participant Handout: If appropriate, you may want to include one handout for each group that includes:

  • Agenda, with break and lunch times indicated
  • WiFi information
  • Event branding (hashtags, logos, event URL)
  • GitHub and Slack Channel Links

Facilitator Presentation: Develop a presentation that you will use throughout the event to help you facilitate. Presentation slides should cover:

  • Title slide: name, date, location of event, your name and office, relevant logos
  • Acknowledgements slide: thank the groups or individuals that helped you put the event together, as well as any sponsors, as appropriate
  • Slide reminding participants of why they are there: i.e. creatively solve problems using data!
  • Project and facilitator slide: list projects and their respective facilitator(s); at this point you may ask facilitators to give a 1-2 minute spiel on their project, what they want to accomplish during the event, what they need help with, etc.
  • Event vision slide: What are the goals for the day? Is there a vision for future events or collaboration opportunities?
  • Logistics: What is the plan for today? Where are the bathrooms?
  • Ground rules slide: What are the ground rules?
  • Instruction or milestone slides: Use slides to articulate specific instructions or as reminders of deadlines or milestones participants should be meeting throughout the event.
  • Reporting out slide(s): If you haven’t provided a template report product (see below) to participants, use a slide to provide instructions on what information should be reported out. For example:
    • Key themes, sticking points, discussions
    • Demonstration of prototype
    • Recommended next steps
  • Group discussion slide: If you can, leave some time at the end of the day to check in with participants to see how the event went for them. This could be via a group discussion or a bitly link and QR code to a post-event survey.
  • Thank you slide: Thank participants for their work during the event, provide your contact information and the location of where an event summary will be posted, if any.

Template Report Product: Having participants report on what they have accomplished during the event is a great thing to do. It allows them to showcase their work to each other and, if this event is concurrent to a larger symposium, also to symposium attendees who were not able to attend the Datathon/Hackathon event. However, expecting participants to think of how they are supposed to report their results is a lot to ask. We recommend providing Project Facilitators and participants with some sort of template that they can fill in throughout the event. This will help participants know what they should be working towards and keep presentation formats and styles consistent among groups.

Give a digital version to the facilitators BEFORE the event, and again the morning of the event so they are aware of it and able to work on it with the participants throughout the event. This could be in the form of a worksheet, a semi-structured flip chart, a PowerPoint presentation, a GitHib Repository, etc.;

The reporting process can be intimidating to participants, especially if they are going to be giving a more formal presentation to a relatively large crowd or anyone that hasn’t been involved in the datathon or hackathon event. In addition to the Template Report Product, it is recommended participants reference the Healthy Watershed Partnership’s resources on Communicating Results for tips on general communication, and developing presentations and posters.

GitHub: If you are using data and anticipate participants developing code, create a GitHub Repository through the California Water Board Data Center that everyone can access and contribute to. For more information or to join the California Water Board Data Center, contact

Slack: Slack is a free online communication platform frequently used in the data community. If you plan on having a multiple day event, multiple events on the same topic, or just want participants to be able to engage virtually during or after the event, consider creating a Slack workspace.

Event Support: Regardless of how organized you as the event planner and facilitator may be, you will want (NEED) help! If at all possible, try recruiting a couple of people (the more the merrier) to help with setup and break down of equipment before and after the event, and someone that will stay in the room with you to help facilitate groups or get everyone's attention throughout the event. Having this extra support will be tremendously helpful, especially if and when you experience hiccups, or unexpected challenges during the event.

Project Facilitators

Find your project facilitators early and communicate with them often. Project facilitators should be subject matter experts that can guide discussions and project development throughout the event.

Project facilitators, like event attendees, tend to be volunteers interested in the subject matter or problems you are trying to solve. They may or may not have experience facilitating groups and are generally interested in volunteering to help move the project along. As best as you can, make it easy for them to help you.

  • As soon as a project facilitator is confirmed (ideally 2 months or more before the event), set up a one-on-one meeting with them (in person or over the phone) to discuss:
    • The project facilitator’s role and expectations. What do you want them to do?
    • The overall project vision. How do you see the project progressing during the event?
    • Specific project objectives, questions, products. What do you want participants to answer, accomplish, or build during the event?
    • What can realistically be done in the time allotted. What are the small, bite-sized tasks that can realistically be accomplished in the allotted time?
  • More than one one-on-one meeting may be needed depending on the project, meeting facilitator, and project facilitator. During the first one-on-one call, ask the project facilitator if they would like to meet again (if so, how frequently) and what resources they need to make their role easier.
  • A week or so before the event, host a call or meeting with all conformed project facilitators. Give them time and space to ask any questions they have about the event and remind everyone of:
    • The event’s overarching objectives and vision
    • Their role and expectations
    • Resources available to them before and during the event (e.g. process agenda, datasets, worksheets, white boards, flip charts, laptops, etc.)
    • The run of show and process agenda.
    • Any deadlines or milestones they should aim to meet during the event (e.g. complete introductions and brainstorming by 10 am on day 1, have draft presentation complete by 11 am on day 2).
  • After the facilitator call, send the facilitators any materials that you think will be useful to them, including:
    • Links to GitHubs, website, etc.
    • Datasets
    • Overarching event and project goals and objectives
    • Process Agenda
    • Relevant worksheets
    • Any other resources that were discussed or requested

Useful Links