We are happy to announce that the Code for America project LocalData was recently selected one of six Knight News Challenge winners in the data round! Support from Knight Foundation will allow our team to continue our work beyond the CfA fellowship — deploying LocalData into four new cities. Reflecting on the ways LocalData could support ongoing work of community groups, non-profits, and government agencies, we realized vast potential for LocalData beyond one city.
Across the country, different kinds of groups (cites, nonprofits, universities) already collect place-based data. These groups add or update information on a variety of indicators — anything from recreational and environmental assets like parks, gardens and playgrounds, to the conditions of vacant lots and abandoned buildings, to where local businesses and institutions are. This information is used to support advocacy campaigns, fundraising, and political support of ideas or community interests.
To date, two groups in Detroit have piloted LocalData in its beta version. A graduate urban planning class at Wayne State University used the toolkit in partnership with the City of Detroit’s Planning Department as part of a capstone project to study commercial corridors. Over a six-week period, the class successfully collected data on more than 9,000 commercial properties and created a citywide study. Currently, a smaller community development corporation in Detroit is piloting LocalData to survey housing conditions and the location of vacant property. In both of these cases, LocalData has contributed to the efficiency and scale at which place-based information can be collected.
Leading up to the production of LocalData, we identified a critically broken workflow in the collection and analysis of place based data at several levels. This process is not unique to Detroit’s huge cohort of civically engaged institutions and community groups. These were major problems with the way important organizations and citizens were collecting information about where they live and work:
Collection tools: Community groups and professional urban planners alike typically do field-based surveys with pen and paper. Although there has been movement toward tablet-based information gathering in recent years, it is shocking to see the prevalence of paper and pen in the field. This is largely because there hasn’t been a free or easy alternative, but rather a series of expensive proprietary tools typically reserved for large institutions (think the Census). As we introduce mobile applications into many other aspects of daily experience, there is no reason why we can’t tremendously improve the efficiency of this process for all groups by using mobile applications to do the work where paper was once the only alternative. Static maps lack the comprehensiveness that aerial and responsive imagery can now provide in your web browser. By incorporating GoogleMaps features like streetview and satellite imagery, we can allow surveyors to instantly discern between property lines and recognize property features which may be unclear with an analog map.
Transfer & Analysis: Currently, groups tend to collect data and transfer this information to an analyst with a stack of paper or an excel sheet. Data is kept in inconsistent formats. From there, experts must either transcribe information manually and then clean, parse, and analyze that data before even providing the service requested (make a map or report). This is a detrimental workflow on two fronts: a) it wastes an expert’s time and capacity. Instead of pouring that effort into making a really substantially useful report or map, experts are cleaning and transcribing data. b) Communities are divorced from their data. When you take away information that people on the ground have collected you are disempowering them from having control over, understanding and ultimately robbing them of a process that doesn’t need to involve resources or capacity from outside experts. Beyond that, the popularized tools available for geospatial analysis are designed for experts, require expensive licenses, and training.
These are crucial barriers we hope to dismantle by creating an accessible and ultimately powerful analytic tool for everyday people, while simultaneously exposing information and exporting powerfully accurate and localized datasets useful for data consumers (analysts, journalists, researchers, and governments). We strive to change the emphasis from sorting, cleaning, and transcription to actually using collected data to make real-world impacts.
Over the next year we will begin to launch LocalData in Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco and continue our ongoing work with Detroit. We hope to make LocalData a toolkit that groups of all capacities can use to help support the work they are already doing. If you’re interested in using LocalData in your next survey (anything from comprehensive city or state-wide surveys to neighborhood level mapping projects) email us at [email protected] and we’ll get in touch!
Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.