Dataworkplace: A cooperation between local governments and Utrecht University

Computer punch card detail. Foto: Flickr/NeilHester
Computer punch card detail. Photo: Flickr/NeilHester

Government agencies collect much data and use data technology to optimise their services. This 'datafication’ affects the core tasks of municipalities and provinces in many ways. It also raises questions, for example about ownership, ethics, and technology. The Utrecht Data School (UDS) and the Utrecht University School of Governance (UUSG) have therefore started a collaboration with local and regional authorities to develop academic and applied knowledge about data practices.

Albert Meijer en Mirko Tobias Schäfer
Albert Meijer and Mirko Tobias Schäfer


Dr Mirko Tobias Schäfer (UDS) and Prof. Albert Meijer (UUSG) are currently working together in the Datawerkplaats (Dataworkplace) with the municipalities of Almere, Gouda, and Woerden, and the province of South-Holland. Initially, the researchers will work with the external parties for the next two years. Schäfer: "This cooperation makes it possible, through interdisciplinary research in three different municipalities and a province, to explore which capacities (local) governments need to develop in order to function in the digital society, and what administrative role they need to play”.

The Dataworkplace is a collaboration between the university and the public sector. It is not commissioned research. Both parties bring in knowledge: this is about mutual knowledge transfer and transdisciplinarity. The aim is both to utilize academic research for application and to calibrate our findings through interactions with practice.”

Concrete knowledge products

There are two lines of research. The first line explores possible action perspectives for governments in relation to digitisation. The second line investigates which operational capacities governments need to have in house to be able to function properly in the datafied society. Schäfer: "This study is directly linked to the questions local and regional authorities face. The aim is to develop concrete knowledge products that can be used by local and regional authorities. Examples include a framework for cooperation with market parties; a guideline for the participation of citizens in data projects; or a framework for ethical testing of data projects. ”


An example of how people work together in the dataworkplace can be found in the cooperation with the municipality of Gouda. Schäfer: "In Gouda we looked at the value of data in dealing with a problem such as burglary. The municipality of Gouda had already analysed data on perpetrators, victims, and related addresses, but had not yet looked at environmental factors. Students of UDS collected this data for four different categories: Weather and time, quality of neighbourhoods, social cohesion and perceived security. With these students we can not only research data practices, but also develop them, and we stimulate debates between stakeholders and policy makers; through all this we actively participate in shaping the future datafied society. For the dataworkplace, the researchers explore the necessary data skills that the organisation must develop in order to be able to create value from data itself.

Data Ethics Decision Aid (DEDA) at Overheid 360°
Data Ethics Decision Aid (DEDA) at Overheid 360°

Responsible data practices

Governments are increasingly aware of the importance to work with data responsibly. UDS has therefore developed the Data Ethics Decision Aid (DEDA) in collaboration with data analysts from the municipality of Utrecht. Schäfer: "DEDA offers support in answering ethical questions about data projects. It supports developers, project managers and policy makers to identify and expose potential risks and pitfalls." The partners of the dataworkplace are particularly interested in developing data ethical awareness and implementing responsible data practices in the organizational processes.

We are now creating a rich learning environment in which young researchers can make a direct contribution to strengthening the public sector and at the same time can study issues academically.

Contribution to academic research

The dataworkplace also appears to be a good opportunity for researchers who are afraid of being tied to a desk for four years of dissertation writing, says Albert Meijer. "We are now creating a rich learning environment in which young researchers can make a direct contribution to strengthening the public sector and at the same time can study issues academically. More and more young researchers find this combination very attractive. Through their interdisciplinary collaboration, Meijer and Schäfer want to conceptually describe the data authentication of governments and explore which policy choices can preserve the public values of the open society." These applied research projects not only yield direct results for the partner organisations, but also contribute to our academic research," says Schäfer.

Eerste groep promovendi
The first cohort of PhD students

Civic university

The relationship between organisational capacity, public tasks and legitimacy must be rethought in order to make effective and responsible choices about the use and regulation of data practices. This fits in directly with Utrecht University's ambitions to work together with social partners and to facilitate mutual knowledge transfer. Director of Regional Cooperation Cor Jansen is enthusiastic: "It is exactly what the UU has in mind with the concept of Civic University, a university with strong substantive (education and research) and impactful connections in its immediate social environment (in district, city and region)".


The dataworkplace is initially financed for two years by the external partners. Two researchers, David van den Berg and Justine Dingelsted, and project manager Lotje Sifels are part of the team, in addition to Albert Meijer and Mirko Schäfer.


Foto: Flickr/Marcin Ignac
Photo: Flickr/Marcin Ignac