Mapping youth well-being worldwide with open data

Ryan Swanstrom is a blogger at Data Science 101. This post originally appeared on DataKind’s blog.

How does mapping child poverty in Washington DC help inform efforts to support child and young adult well being in the UK and Kentucky?

Back in March 2012, a team of DataKind volunteers in Washington DC worked furiously to finish their final presentation at a weekend DataDive. Little did they know, the impact of their work would extend far beyond DC and far beyond the weekend. Their prototyped visualization ultimately became a polished tool that would impact communities worldwide.

DC Action for Children’s Data Tools 2.0 is an interactive visualization tool to explore the effects of income, healthcare, neighborhoods, and population on child well-being in the Washington DC area. The source code for Data Tools 2.0 and open data sources have since been used by DataKind UK and Code for America volunteers to benefit their local partners. There is now potential for it to reach even more communities through DataLook’s #openimpact Marathon.

See how far a solution can spread when you bring together open data, open code and open hearted volunteers around the world.

What a difference a DataDive makes

DC Action for Children, a Washington DC nonprofit focusing on child well-being, needed help understanding how Washington DC could be one of the most affluent and wealthy cities in the United States, yet have one of the highest child poverty rates. Could mapping child poverty help uncover patterns and insights to drive action to address it?

A team of DataDive volunteers, led by Data Ambassador Sisi Wei, took on the challenge and, in less than 24 hours, created a prototype that wrangled data in a multitude of forms from government agencies, Census and DC Action for Children’s own databases.  The 24-hours then evolved into a multi-month DataCorps project involving many DataKind volunteers. The team unveiled a more polished version to a large and influential audience in Washington DC, including the Mayor of DC himself! They then completed the final enhancements to create Data Tools 2.0, which is now live on DC Action for Children’s website.

The project has since released the source code on Github, and the team has continued to collaborate and advance the project to where it is today. In fact, if you’re local, check out the August 5th DataKind DC Meetup to join in and continue improving the tool.

This story alone is incredible and speaks to the incredible commitment of these volunteers and the importance of having a strong partner like DC Action for Children to implement and utilize the work as an integrated part of its mission.

And that’s usually where the story ends. Thanks to DataKind’s global network though, the impact of this work was just starting to spread.

A Visualization Goes Viral

Because the visualization used open data (freely available data for public use) and open source software or code (freely available code that can be viewed, modified, and reused), other volunteers could quickly repurpose the work and apply it to their local community.

DataKind UK London DataDive

The first time the visualization was replicated was in October 2014 for The North East Child Poverty Commission. The Commission had a similar challenge of wanting to better understand child poverty in the North East of England. A team at the London DataDive reused the code from DataTools 2.0 and created a similar visualization for the North East of England. This enabled the team to quickly produce valuable results that “thrilled” NECPC. One of the team’s Data Ambassadors continued to work with the organization and has since migrated the visualization to a different platform in Tableau.

DataKind UK Leeds DataDive

In April 2015, DataKind UK hosted another DataDive in Leeds with three charity partners, Volition, Voluntary Action Leeds and the Young Foundation, to tackle the structural causes of inequality in the city. All three charity teams came together to create a visualization tool that allows people to explore features of financial, young NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) and mental health inequality. But they did not recreate the wheel—they leveraged past work and repurposed code from DC Action for Children. Read more about the event in this recap from DataDive attendee, Andy Dickinson.

Beyond the DataKind Network

Now, it’s great to see a solution scale within an organization’s network, but it’s even more impressive to see it scale beyond, in this case, into Kentucky and maybe one day India or Finland.

#HackForChange with Code For America

In June 2015, the city of Louisville, Kentucky teamed with Civic Data Alliance to host a hackathon in honor of the National Day of Civic Hacking. Kentucky Youth Advocates, a nonprofit organization focused on “making Kentucky the best place in America to be a kid,” wanted to visually explore the factors affecting successful children outcomes across Council Districts. There is a large variance in child resources throughout the city, which is having an effect on child well-being. The volunteers repurposed the original code and used local publicly available data to create the Kentucky Youth Advocates Data Visualization, which is now helping the city of Louisville better distribute resources for children.

#openimpact Marathon

DC Action for Children is also one of the projects selected for the #openimpact Marathon hosted by DataLook. The goal of the marathon is to get people and groups to replicate existing data-driven projects for social good. So far, there is interest in replicating the Data Tools 2.0 visualization for child crimes in India and another potential replication for senior citizens in Finland. There is no telling where this visualization will end up helping next. Get involved!

Ok ok, but what is the impact of all this really?

Aren’t these just visualizations? Yes, as any good data scientist knows, data visualizations are not an end in and of themselves. In fact, it’s typically just part of the overall process of gaining insight into data for some larger end goal. Similarly, open data in and of itself does not automatically mean impact. The data has to be easy to access, in the right formats, and people have to apply it to real-world challenges. Just because you build it (or open it), does not necessarily mean impact will come.

Yet visualizations and open data sources are often a critical first step to bigger outcomes. So what makes the difference between a flashy marketing tool and something that will help improve real people’s lives? The strength of the partner organization that will ultimately use it to create change in the world.

Data visualizations, open data and open source code alone are not going to end child poverty. People are going to end child poverty. The strength of the tool itself is less important than the strength of an organization’s strategy of how to use it to inform decision-making and conversation around a given issue.

Thankfully, DC Action for Children has been a tremendous partner and is using Data Tools 2.0 as a key part of its efforts to improve the lives of children in DC. It’s exciting to see the tool now spreading to equally impressive partners around the world.

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Five ways for states to make the most of open data

Mariko Davidson serves as an Innovation Fellow for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts where she works on all things open data. These opinions are her own. You can follow her @rikohi.

States struggle to define their role in the open data movement. With the exception of some state transportation agencies, states watch their municipalities publish local data, create some neat visualizations and applications, and get credit for being cool and innovative.

States see these successes and want to join the movement. Greater transparency! More efficient government! Innovation! The promise of open data is rich, sexy, and non-partisan. But when a state publishes something like obscure wildlife count data and the community does not engage with it, it can be disappointing.

States should leverage their unique role in government rather than mimic a municipal approach to open data. They must take a different approach to encourage civic engagement, more efficient government, and innovation. Here are few recommendations based on my time as a fellow:

  1. States are a treasure trove of open data. This is still true. When prioritizing what data to publish, focus on the tangible data that impacts the lives of constituents—think aggregating 311 request data from across the state. Mark Headd, former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia, calls potholes the “gateway drug to civic engagement.”
  2. States can open up data sharing with their municipalities—which leads to a conversation on data standards. States can use their unique position to federate and facilitate data sharing with municipalities. This has a few immediate benefits: a) it allows citizens a centralized source to find all levels of data within the state; b) it increases communication between the municipalities and the state; and c) it begins to push a collective dialogue on data standards for better data sharing and usability.
  3. States in the US create an open data technology precedent for their towns and municipalities. Intentional or not, the state sets an open data technology standard—so they should leverage this power strategically. When a state selects a technology platform to catalog its data, it incentivizes municipalities and towns within the state to follow its lead. If a state chooses a SaaS solution, it creates a financial barrier to entry for municipalities that want to collaborate. The Federal Government understood this when it moved to the open source solution CKAN. Bonus: open source software is free and embodies the free and transparent ethos of the greater open data movement.
  4. States can support municipalities and towns by offering open data as a service. This can be an opportunity to provide support to municipalities and towns that might not have the resources to stand up their own open data site.
  5. Finally, states can help facilitate an “innovation pipeline” by providing the data infrastructure and regularly connecting key civic technology actors with government leadership. Over the past few years, the civic technology movement experienced a lot of success in cities with groups like Code for America leading the charge with their local Brigade Chapters. After publishing data and providing the open data infrastructure, states must also engage with the super users and data consumers. States should not shy away from these opportunities. More active state engagement is a crucial element still missing in the civic innovation space in order to collectively create sustainable technology solutions for the communities they serve.

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Better Permits, Better Cities: How Hacking City Policy Can Improve the Public Realm

Jake Levitas is a civic designer, organizer, and activist based in San Francisco. Cross-posted from

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody. — Jane Jacobs

Cities are at their best when they change with their citizens; when, to quote Rebar principal Matthew Passmore, “a city’s evolution keeps pace with its own cultural evolution.” Unfortunately, cities are often preventing themselves from doing just that—from being responsive enough to their own changing dynamics to continue existing as accurate reflections of and platforms for their own cultures. Outdated permitting processes are keeping a large swath of promising projects in art, design, technology, and other modes of expression from ever becoming part of the urban landscape. Along the way, cities are missing opportunities to add economic and cultural value in a time of constrained resources.

In other words: cities can be more healthy, engaging, beautiful and productive if they make it easier for citizens to contribute to making them so.

Historically, projects that alter the public realm have been generally divided into two camps: those that play by the rules (city-sanctioned installations, community murals) and those that don’t (graffiti, vandalism). Recently, this dichotomy has been disrupted by projects that make practical and aesthetic improvements to public space—but don’t always ask for permission. This approach is driven by citizens with the passion to improve their cities and the impatience to not wait through the full public permitting process to take action. But what if that process weren’t so intimidating, time-consuming, and costly for the average city resident? Could we make cities better, faster?

Why Civic Design Policy is Like Rocket Science
In between powerful ideas and powerful change lies powerful bureaucracy.

Internally, city governments are tasked with ensuring that public infrastructure and funds are used safely and responsibly. Permits that utilize these funds or resources are, for good reason, a big part of this.

But from an outside perspective—for community members, designers, artists, architects, makers—the process of getting a project approved and permitted by city departments might as well be rocket science. The entire tactical urbanism movement exists largely as a band-aid solution for citizens who lack the resources, time, or patience to navigate this complex approval system, and prefer taking matters into their own hands to create local change. A key question moving forward is how this process can be opened up to look less like rocket science, and more like the DIY science kits that turn kids everywhere into excited, engaged brainstormers. How can we make the permitting process sexier to better engage the average citizen?

Let’s get into the details a little bit. Say you want to install an Urban Prototyping project like Urban Parasol in your city—attaching a modular shade structure to a light pole. In San Francisco, the light pole you’re attaching to is managed by SFPUC, the sidewalks people are standing on underneath your structure are managed by SFDPW, and the street thoroughfare your overhang stretches above is managed by SFMTA. You might need permits and approvals from all of these agencies before you even think of hitting the street—and often, existing permits aren’t set up to handle these types of ideas.

While you’re at it, you might want to talk to someone in the SF Arts Commission, City Administrator’s Office, Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, or your local Community Benefit District about gaining local support for the project. Then you’ll need to make sure it doesn’t make the area less beautiful, more dangerous, or more prone to attract noisy late-night revelry in the eyes of the neighbors nearby. And finally, you’ll also need a way to pay for the material costs, and find a way to get your work paid for if you’re not planning to donate your time as a civic volunteer. All of this work is on top of the citizens’ principal focus of creating the best public art piece, design intervention, or interactive installation they possibly can—which is a huge job in itself.

Understandably, it’s hard for most citizens who want to contribute to know where to begin. The process isn’t made easier by the fact that most government websites are difficult to navigate (though there are exceptions!), and most departments don’t have a liaison dedicated to making this process easy and accessible for the community.

Better permits will allow artists and designers to focus more on what they’re good at—creating great civic projects—while allowing city planners to focus on their own invaluable strengths—navigating the crucial regulatory nuances of City Hall that can make these projects a reality.

Why It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way
Cities want to help, and the barriers aren’t as big as they seem.

Here’s the good news: the obstacles to getting public design projects approved, built, and installed are actually not as complicated as they seem—and they’re pretty much exactly what you would think they are. In speaking with city officials in several San Francisco agencies recently, they all outlined the same five barriers as the root causes of bureaucratic slowness and difficulty. I’ve listed these below, along with some basic steps toward getting around them:

  1. Liability + injury potential: Perhaps the biggest obstacle from a legal perspective is determining who is responsible if someone is injured or otherwise harmed directly or indirectly by a project. Most projects need someone to cover liability associated with them, which sometimes means working out a deal with the city or a local business owner who already has a policy in place. This can be tricky but certainly isn’t impossible, and could be streamlined by the city to make it even easier—for example, by creating a guide that helps citizens understand the liability process and their options for getting approved.
  2. Citizen complaints: Many projects can be derailed due to concerns from locals over issues like noise, aesthetics, traffic, or safety. Working with the community and conducting preliminary testing and meetings before a full installation can go a long way toward easing the public’s mind and garnering support for a project
  3. Funding + procurement: Procurement requirements—standards for the entities and people that can provide services to and receive funding from the city—can be a barrier for individual citizens and smaller organizations to create real projects that take advantage of city improvement funds and other public funding. There are a few easy ways to help remedy this: designers and artists can work through nonprofits and firms that are already city vendors; the city can make it easier for citizens to both become vendors and/or connect with existing vendors; and the city can also fast-track projects with external funding (from grants, individuals, or crowd funding) to increase the value they are able to capture from outside City Hall.
  4. Lack of interagency dialog: Every city has a web of responsibilities that is often spread across a complicated web of departments and individuals. However, most cities lack an interagency review board or task force to streamline the process of approving public design projects. Others make it difficult for departments to simply talk to each other, making it harder to find the creative regulatory solutions sometimes necessary to bring projects to life. We’ve started forming an Urban Prototyping Task Force in San Francisco to help get the ball rolling on these issues, and a culture of dialog can also be taken much further when it is promoted from the top by a visionary mayor or planning director.
  5. Lack of a good public interface: As mentioned above, there’s generally no central government touch point for citizens who want to design for the public realm. Ideally this touch point should be a combination of 1) well-designed and accessible informational resources and 2) dedicated staff members to support them and interface with the public directly. In San Francisco, we’re fortunate to have the SF Better Streets initiative—a simply fantastic effort that gets closer to this interface than anything else I’ve personally seen.

Finally, most city staff members I’ve met with are just as frustrated with the typical regulatory process as we on the outside are—and they’re actively looking for great new citizen-led projects and the means to take them forward. This may be somewhat unique to San Francisco, birthplace of the parklet, but my sense from speaking with officials in other cities is that the broader culture is changing—the permits themselves just haven’t been able to catch up yet.

Where We Go From Here
We know the problems—so let’s start tackling them together.

If the good news is that barriers to permitting civic design projects are well-known and surmountable, the better news is that many cities are already heading in the right direction. San Francisco’s groundbreaking work creating the parklet permit has been well-documented, and Boston’s City Hall to Go program is another great example of making city services and processes more accessible to the general public. Even more importantly, the conversations between City Hall insiders and outsiders—those in need of city approvals and those providing them—have become much more frequent and robust in recent years—a welcome change from the sometimes stereotypical bureaucratic Iron Curtain. Technology and new forms of engagement are only making these interactions easier.

To be clear, “hacking” the permitting process—rethinking it to make it more efficient, effective, and attractive—isn’t necessarily going to be easy, fast, or fun. It took about five years to formally establish the parklet permitting process in San Francisco. If we’re going to hack city policy successfully, our best tool is the continued dialog between citizens and government. Understanding each others’ needs and contexts is the first step to change, and it’s already starting to happen today.

Every citizen can be a part of this change by tracking down supportive officials in the right departments, sharing successful project examples, and organizing open discussions (like this one) to promote understanding and (most importantly) action. Together, we can ensure that better permits will create better cities.

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California Civic Innovation Project Report Released

Back in March, Rachel Burstein of the New America Foundation wrote about some of the findings from their research on civic innovation in California. The full report is now available for download, and Rachel has given us permission to repost her announcement from

Whether you work at the Department of Agriculture, the California State Treasury Office or the Planning Division of the City of San Jose, you have probably encountered the following scenario. You are tasked with solving a problem—say, how to encourage those eligible for food stamps to take advantage of the program, or how to eliminate a sizeable part of the public safety budget without also reducing costs—and you want to investigate possible solutions systematically. But you don’t know what approaches have been tried, the effectiveness of such approaches, or the applicability of those solutions to the specific situation your department and constituencies are facing.

What do you do? Perhaps you begin with a basic Google search. You find some examples that seem like they might relevant. Perhaps you read an article about a town government in another state that consolidated its police department with that of another community, thereby saving millions of dollars a year. The city manager and members of the City Council have good things to say about the arrangement, but you have trouble finding information about obstacles the town leadership faced in implementing the consolidation. Plus, given the difficulties you’ve had collaborating with a neighboring town on a recycling program and what you know about a nearby city’s approach to policing, you’re not sure if consolidation of departments is a good option for your town.

What’s your next step? If you’re ambitious, maybe you find contact information for the city manager in the city that tried the consolidation strategy and ask him about difficulties he faced in the project. Or maybe you send a query to a professional association list-serv asking if anyone can direct you to resources on similar local projects. Or perhaps you bring up the topic at the next meeting of the city managers group to which you belong.

The problem with any of these scenarios is that you have gleaned only limited, generic, or second-hand information from either unverifiable sources or from sources with limited understanding of how the solution will operate in the circumstances you face. For certain types of information—say, creating a new form for renting your agency’s facilities, or determining what icons to use to designate recycling containers—this may not be a problem. But when it comes to government solving tough problems through innovative approaches, strong personal networks are key.

This finding is one of many found in a new report released by the New America Foundation’s California Civic Innovation Project. The report summarizes survey and interview data on perceptions of, obstacles to, and motivations for innovation in local government. It assesses how knowledge sharing between locales promotes innovation, and the particular importance of personal networks in facilitating effective knowledge sharing around innovation.

Among the report’s major findings are the following:

  • Internal organizational or managerial changes to improve service delivery while reducing costs—not e-government, public-private partnerships, or civic engagement projects—are the most important innovations adopted in cities and counties, according to those who work in local government.
  • Resource constraints both motivate innovation and serve as an obstacle to effective knowledge sharing and the potential for innovation diffusion in local government.
  • Pressure from elected officials and legislative mandates are more significant drivers than community input for city managers and county administrators when it comes to adopting new approaches.
  • By far, personal contacts—especially those in geographically proximate communities—are the most valuable source of knowledge for city and county administrators investigating and implementing new approaches.
  • Professional associations are more valuable as knowledge sources for innovation than the individual tools and services (e.g. list-servs, professional development opportunities, webinars, etc.) that such groups offer.
    Personal channels are the most typical way that local government staffers share knowledge about innovation with colleagues in other communities.
  • There are wide divides between urban and rural communities when it comes to perceptions of civic innovation and the ways in which knowledge is acquired and shared.

We hope to start a conversation among various stakeholders at all levels of government in order to develop specific recommendations deriving from this research. What can professional associations do to enlarge and strengthen the personal networks of their members? What can government managers do to communicate their strategies—successes, failures, and aborted projects—to others faced with similar problems? What types of institutional support need to be in place to facilitate such changes? These are the questions that we hope to begin to answer in the coming months. We hope that you will be part of the conversation!

In the meantime, you can download the full report here. We look forward to hearing from you.

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