The Boston Data Portal: Putting Data in the Hands of Everyday Bostonians

| Dan O'Brien, Research Director of Boston Area Research Initiative

bariIn recent years, digital technology has become ever-present, involved in nearly all aspects of everyday life. And where there is digital technology, there are data. As a society, we are awash in data—what some might call a data deluge. But, just as water converts from a vital resource to a confounding nuisance during a flood, “big data,” as they are sometimes called, are rich sources of information that are largely inaccessible to the vast majority of the population. This is true even here in greater Boston, where cities like Boston, Somerville, and Cambridge have each built portals through which they publish data, offering the public the opportunity to directly analyze the patterns of their own city. Unfortunately, very few citizens are “hackers” or data scientists, and are unable to capitalize on these publicly available data sets in their raw form.

The Boston Area Research Initiative (for which I am the Research Director) is seeking to solve this problem through the Boston Data Portal, a public platform where visitors can browse, download, analyze, and map data describing the people, places, and neighborhoods of Boston. The Boston Data Portal is composed to two parts: the Data Library, which, like a open data portal, is oriented towards data scientists and others who want access to raw data that they will then analyze, visualize, and explore on their own; and BostonMap, an easy-to-use mapping platform where visitors can explore the neighborhoods of Boston from their computer, including visualizations of data from various sources as well as access to other tools, like Google Street View.

BostonMap BARI

The Boston Data Portal features a variety of data. It includes a series of census indicators that BARI has curated. Beyond that, many of the contents have been built through BARI’s efforts to identify novel digital data sources, like administrative records and social media posts, and to unlock the content within them for the purposes of research, policy, and practice. Thanks to a series of partnerships with data-generating entities, particularly the City of Boston, as well as support for graduate student theses and dissertations, BARI has been able to build out the contents of the Boston Data Portal.

Some of the highlights include documentation of all bicycle collisions recorded by Boston Police Department between 2009 and 2012; or maps tracking shifts in ethnicity, labor patterns, and public education between 1880 and 1930. Possibly most notable has been BARI’s effort to construct ecometrics—interpretable measures that describe the physical and social characteristics of a neighborhood—from novel administrative records. For example, BARI publishes annual measures of physical disorder (i.e., graffiti, “broken windows”) and “custodianship” (i.e., care for public spaces) based on 311 records, and of investment and growth based on building permits.

The difference between the Boston Data Portal and a traditional open data portal might be captured in the following metaphor, which I am borrowing from my friend Chris Scranton at Jobcase, Inc. An open data portal is like going into your pantry: you have a substantial set of ingredients at your disposal, but it is up to you to put those things together to make dinner. The Boston Data Portal is more like visiting a restaurant. The raw materials have already been analyzed and prepared in a manner that makes them immediately useful. Policymakers can use them to guide decision-making. Advocacy groups can see clearly the needs of their community. Parents can understand the environment of a neighborhood before they move there, or learn more about the neighborhood in which their children attend school. Teachers of all levels might use it to illustrate the variations of the vity for their students, or to inspire them to learn more about their community.

Releasing data publicly is one thing, but promoting its use is an entirely other. To this end, BARI has undertaken a series of community-based trainings where we are teaching representatives from community organizations how to use the Data Portal to better understand and advocate for their constituencies. The trainings also include a conversation about how the data are useful, and what other content might be valuable, so that we can continue to build the Boston Data Portal to fit the needs of local communities. We have started with community organizations because they are the entities that work directly with communities. Our goal is to partner with some of these organizations to hold future trainings that are even closer to grassroots of the city, so that we can fulfill our goal of putting data in the hands of everyday Bostonians.

For more information, head to our online resources at BARI’s website and the Dataverse.

If you represent a community organization that would like to participate in an upcoming training, please contact Chelsea Farrell, the project manager for the community-based trainings, at [email protected].

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