An unlikely option presented itself to the tens of thousands of visitors to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center’s website in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Anyone browsing the site — whether a government official monitoring repopulation trends or a displaced New Orleans resident looking to see which schools had reopened — could click on a discreet button inviting him or her to simply “Ask Allison.”
The person on the receiving end of these clicks was Allison Plyer, the data center’s deputy director at the time. The center’s mission since its inception in 1997 has been to “democratize” data in New Orleans, making it accessible to a wide audience. Its efforts in this regard mostly address the myriad logistical barriers between the overwhelming mass of available public information and those seeking it. But its five-member staff also understood how cold, indecipherable and impersonal “data” can seem, so they gave it a human face.
“It’s a very New Orleanian thing to do,” says Plyer, now the data center’s executive director. “Since long before Katrina we’ve been trying to get people to use data. This was a way of making them feel comfortable.”
Traffic to the data center’s website skyrocketed after the storm, with 40,000 unique visits in August 2005, 80,000 in September, and an average of 15,000 per month as the rebuilding process commenced. Basic population data, which the center gathered from the U.S. Postal Service’s counts of residences actively receiving mail, was initially highest in demand and guided deployment of government and nonprofit resources. As more and more residents returned, the data center called individual institutions to determine which schools, hospitals, clinics and child care centers were operating. They then put that information on maps, complete with “Best Used By” date stamps that reflected how quickly information could become obsolete. As rebuilding progressed, the data center partnered with the Brookings Institute to publish the New Orleans Index, a highly readable clearinghouse of information related to housing, services and infrastructure, workforce and economy, and emergency response.
Demand for data did not abate as reconstruction continued, and as Plyer and her team worked furiously to provide decision-makers and community stakeholders accurate, pertinent information, she realized she was in the midst of a cultural shift. “Before Katrina, decision-makers thought they knew what the problems were and what to do about them,” she says. “Post-Katrina, no one thought they knew what was going on. Data was needed for virtually every decision. The data center has built data literacy at grassroots and high levels, and now people are really eager for it. Katrina heightened people’s awareness of the importance of data, and that has continued to this current day.”
The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center translates dense statistics into accessible maps like this one.
Entities around the world have recognized that access to open data is crucial to building resilience. One of the largest undertakings toward this aim is the Open Data for Resilience Initiative (OpenDRI), spearheaded by the World Bank-managed Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery. OpenDRI makes policy recommendations to the World Bank and United Nations on disaster data and uses web-based tools to forward its mission, such as the website HaitiData.org, which has made risk-assessment data available since the 2010 earthquake, and the open-source software SAFE, which produces natural-hazard impact scenarios to facilitate planning, preparedness and response activities.
The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center acts as an interface between government and private sources, which possess tremendous stores of data but often lack the wherewithal and obligation to make it transparent and usable. The data center responds to requests and provides data in formats that are useful to the public, and to people who need the data but lack the expertise to access and analyze it. Accessibility is paramount, particularly in a city with a broadband subscription rate of only 40 to 60 percent (compared to 60 to 80 percent in most U.S. metropolitan areas), where even community groups with crucial roles often cannot depend on online communication.
To answer this challenge, the data center works to make information available in a variety of forms, whether via easily downloadable PDFs, live presentations, or partnerships with mainstream media. Last month, the New Orleans Advocate, the city’s only daily print newspaper, partnered with the data center to produce a five-part series, “A Region Redefined,” which leveraged the center’s broad sets of data to illustrate for the general public the broad ways in which the region has been transformed since the storm.
Plyer says the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center is fortunate among its national peers in its consistent ability to secure funding for projects that satisfy the real demand of the center’s constituents. These demands have shifted in the years since Katrina, and the data center has made a point to avoid working with information that is readily available elsewhere, such as, in New Orleans, data about the school system and public health. Three years after the storm, Plyer said requests related to the city’s housing stock were most frequent and pressing, but as that sector has become more secure, economic analysis and workforce metrics have since become paramount. Now that data about the more obvious elements of disaster recovery have been fleshed out, Plyer and her team have turned toward issues that speak more to New Orleans’ general resilience-building efforts. A new initiative that will gather, analyze and publicize data related to the city’s disconnected youth — children ages 16 to 24 who are neither in school nor working — is next for the center, which has implications for everything from employment rates to criminal justice. This initiative, like the rest of the center’s work, is a response to demand — the dismal employment rate of New Orleans youth, 23 percent, has created concern across the city and prompted organizations such as the Roosevelt Institute to take action.
Until the next disaster takes place, the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center will continue to provide data for decisions to help strengthen the city’s core. When the next disaster takes place, it will once again play a critical part in moving toward recovery.
Nathan C. Martin is a writer and editor in New Orleans. He is the author of the Wallpaper* City Guide to New Orleans and his writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Oxford American, The Believer, VICE, and other places. He is the founder and editor of Room 220: New Orleans Book and Literary News as well as its related literary event series. From 2008 – 2010 he was associate publisher and web editor of Stop Smiling. He is currently at work on a book about Wyoming, his home state.