Neighborhood Data: How can we use it to our advantage?

Neighborhood Data: How can we use it to our advantage?

Neighborhood data. What do we mean by it? Who’s collecting it? How is it being collected? How is it being used?

Increasingly, our society talks of “data-driven decision making”. In the more quantitative aspects of life, this has the potential to be relatively straightforward. However, cities and other jurisdictions are using data to drive decisions that impact citizens in their neighborhoods. Communities, by virtue of them being a human construct, means that it isn’t simple or appropriate to generalize a neighborhood to a number, set of numbers, or a color on a map. How do we ensure that data-driven decision making in neighborhoods reflects the reality of life in that neighborhood? How do we ensure members of a community have agency when it comes to conclusions being made based on that data?

Last week’s Conversation in Civic Innovation sought to address this issue. In spite of the beautiful weather, we had a strong turnout at NERD to hear four data specialists from the government, startup and urban planning space discuss their work with neighborhood data, comprised of Holly St. Clair, Elsa Sze, Chris Horne, and Greg Lipstein of DrivenData.

We then broke into groups to discuss topics like appropriate data sets, visualization of data, engaging local communities with the data, as well as leveraging private sector data alongside open data.

The evening’s discussion centered around four major questions:

  1. How do we decide which data set to use? Are some data sets more effective, or more appropriate to use, than others?
  2. Is the data set complete? Was there a portion of the population over- / under-represented? How will this skew any initiatives going forward with the community?
  3. What are the best ways to combine data sets for (1) effectiveness, (2) visualization, (3) end results, to be defined by each group?
  4. How do we get people involved in collection process of data? Are we using the right tools to analyze our data?

Each speaker outlined key points once the group reconvened from the break-out sessions.  Elsa Sze, of Agora, for example, stated the importance of data visualization, and how Agora lays out key municipal data in a comprehensive manner. In addition, governments must state a pre-determined level of success prior to analysis. Data should be viewed in a vertical fashion rather than the traditional horizontal view. Elsa proposed creating a central database to share best practices as a possible solution.

Holly St. Clair, of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, provided additional feedback. Holly also stated that change is one of the only constant trends we can rely, especially with ”big data”. She also agreed with Elsa, expressing the need for accessible useful data.

Chris J. Horne’s group emphasized the community’s desire for data to help provide solutions to neighborhood problems. In addition, collection methods should be representative of the entire community, not just a particular subset of the population. To build on Elsa and Holly’s points, they emphasized the importance of creating a sub-culture of effective data collection.

Lastly, the conversation with Greg Lipstein pointed out the lack of resources, stating that we should use all the open data available to us. Their solution was a method using combined public and private data to help the government perform better.

As the facilitator for the evening, a few things stood out to me:

  • The audience was diverse in terms of background, experience and area of interest. Often, when you host an event as a technology company, you often get primarily technologists in the room. As always, there were some of those at our Civic Innovation Conversation, but they were greatly outnumbered by community representatives (including local government), students, and private citizens who wanted to learn more and discuss this topic.
  • There is a strong interest in understanding how individuals can be involved in the data collection, feedback and decision-making process. I got the sense that people wanted to roll up their sleeves and learn by doing. In other words, people were new to this idea of data-driven decision making, but they weren’t going to let their newness to the topic stop them from being fully involved.
  • I was very happy to see the conversations emerge, both in the small groups as well as at the networking event afterwards. As the evening progressed, the lines blurred between the panelists and the participants, since we are all “experts” when it comes to living in our neighborhoods.

And speaking of conversations, we at Microsoft New England, as well as our friends at Venture Café, would like to keep this conversation moving forward. Let us know what’s on your mind when it comes to neighborhoods, innovation and data.

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