When the Data Flowed to Indianapolis

Last week the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership convening was held in Indiana. These events have been running twice a year since about 1996 and are a unique place for community development, social researchers, mappers, data scientists and planners to get together to share lessons with their peers. No vendors, no exhibitors, just data peeps and organizers.

There were about 100 folks in attendance, out of those, just seven were at the Indianapolis event ten years ago, but many attendees have been an active part of this network for some time. For me this feels almost like family, having been to more than I can remember, starting in 2006. It is one of the most honest events I participate in, where people are willing to share successes as well as failures, to be open about our organizational weaknesses and to encourage each other to do better.

These are a few of the things that stood out to me.

Many things stood out, including John Cruz’s amazing jackets. And his humor.

Ownership & Sharing

Laura McKieran from San Antonio raised an excellent example of a topic I deal with a lot- who owns your data? We were discussing data sharing efforts, of which Oakland is finally getting an interest in, and the reality is that many government staffers come to the table with a view that they “own the data”, and this is a fallacy, (more on that later), but this also plays out as which organizations hold the POWER; the power to to share or to get data. In a collaboration, this has profound impacts from decision making power to affecting the eternal truth that no one organization has all the good ideas- this still remains after all other arguments against sharing. If an agency blocks sharing, they are essentially cutting off the unending possibilities those data may have yielded.

But sharing data is giving up power.

The power to be the only shop in town with access to those data. The power to never be corrected that the data have problems, as no-one can see them. But most importantly, the power to stop others doing good things with your data.

In the end, government agencies do not own your data, they are the custodians, the stewards. YOU OWN YOUR DATA. It’s a democracy thing and it matters.

Speaking of power. Downtown


I love how many traditional organizations are taking on aspects of the startup and community building worlds by stepping outside formal event settings and helping to run meetups, create community data newsletters and becoming part of the local data ecosystem. This takes humility which is also a damn good attribute in collaboration management too.

Some other thoughts I appreciated from Laura is that convening is a critical step to growing- you can make things happen just by getting people together around a specific issue. This has worked for me and it’s worked for the Council too. Get people together who should be talking, but are not. I think we need to trademark this phrase.

Laura also discussed the need to develop a shared vision, and this is key in our work too. Groups that lack a vision often just wander around forever, seeking a point to exist. Don’t be that. Developing strategies with your community is key, not just the goals of a funder, and this enables you to plan well and to come up with measures of success. Ask yourselves “What could we be as a community if we work together?”

Bad Data (Requests)

April Hirsh from Cleveland dug into the problem of people submitting poorly developed data requests. We see this too. It is hard for non researchers to frame good, clear, viable data requests. They invested effort in helping to make better referrals to guide people to other sources or providers, and while we don’t do that often, they’ve grown their pool of reliable partners through this, so that’s a win.

Not fans of bad data requests. Our leaders from the swamp. The nice swamp.

Missing Value

Another issue raised was how do we both exist and provide clear value in a time then data portals are appearing faster than we’re all losing health insurance. These tools create confusion, but do sometimes fill valid needs. My perspective here is that as long as more tools are built WITH open data and also PROVIDE open data, then we are all improving the data driven ecosystem. More closed systems just suck available resources and doesn’t benefit enough users. This is also clouding the value proposition for data- if we give out some free data, if open data is out there, what is the value of data? My deputy director Nick Williams once suggested that the cost of data is getting cheaper but the cost of analysis is higher, and people are expecting more for free.

Sharon Kandris from the local Indianapolis partner added that we have access to more data than ever, but organizations don’t have capacity to mine through it. I think this is both true at the community based organization level, as well as our level- we have only so many trained data and research staff and we can never process all the data that is out there. Some organizations have been getting experience using students to tackle a variety of projects, and this is an approach that can capture some of the knowledge that’s floating out there in spreadsheets.

Do You Data Day?

I love this push from April and many others; they believe that holding Data Days provides a great chance to highlight the data literacy efforts of partners and to build a stronger local data ecosystem. I agree, props Denver!

Louise Carter leads the card sorting exercise

The Golden Session

I’m not just naming it this because I’m such a fan of Denice Ross, yes she is amazing, but this session was a rare one. Most every session is a snippet of one topic, one approach, and that’s fine. But hearing from NOLA and Houston about how they responded to and followed up on disasters of this scale was a rare look into how these two very different organizations really function- from their staff’s geographic dispersment, their approach to technology preparedness by hosting out of state so the data still was live, to the response itself; lessons in not innovating in disasters, adjusting organization approach after the event and considering the oft untouched issue of “how current are your data, people?”. I particularly love the way NOLA added a Best Before stamp to their maps to convey the fact that these data mean nothing after a year or two, given the changes underway. This was a fantastic glimpse into how two partner organizations really work and think.

Critical for cities like Oakland and many more was the reflection that open data is key to have before a disaster in order to ensure access after, when you need it most. If Oakland doesn’t publish ALL the data it possibly could, where will we find it after the big quake we fear? If city staff can’t come in to work, if our fiber line is busted, where the hell do we get the data to plan a recovery from? Open data or bust.

Sonia Marzianon of Smart Chicago Collaborative

User Centered Design

We did a quick session on User Centered Design, I say quick because it was just 2 hours long. I know the pain of allotting a whole two hours to anything in a conference agenda, but the four workshops were so crammed that the lessons only got brushed by, not fully absorbed, but I do wonder if this teaser is enough to justify say, a whole day training on this when we next meet? Our Chicago friends did a great job making this happen too!


One of the unconference/Camp sessions was focused on evictions and eviction data in particular. Only a few partners had managed to find good data, and they were still struggling with how to honestly analyze it given its limitations. The name ‘Matthew Desmond’ was invoked at some point. What is clear to me is that many cities are catching on to the fact that evictions, as Desmond writes, are to black women what incarceration is to black men- we have another crisis underway in our cities and we’re not yet equipped to deal with it. I think we need to begin developing a national playbook on how to source, process, share and analyze eviction data, and how to disrupt and coerce systems where there is only paper information.

Serious biking (tour) with Mark aka @urbandata

We all picked up on foreclosures after a while, here in Oakland we were at the forefront of this crisis, and the lesson there is that we need to invest time in building the playbook, raise the profile of this issue among national and local funders and expend some efforts understanding the problem in our cities and start framing some policy and practice changes to stem the disproportionate impact of eviction on our poor and working families. It folds into the displacement going on across our cities and we need to get more capable and prepared on this issue.

Oh, and did you notice that every speaker name above ain’t a dude? Way to go #NNIPeeps

Data folks from across the country