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How to Make Detroit’s Data Accessible

Credit: Data Driven Detroit

Credit: Data Driven Detroit

The non-profit Data Driven Detroit was founded in 2008 with the ambition, according to director Erica Raleigh, of injecting data into a whole host of conversations about the city’s future and the ecosystem of which it is a part. D3, established with the support of Michigan’s Skillman Foundation and Kresge Foundation, pulls together data sets from places as diverse as the U.S. Census Bureau and the city tax assessor’s office. Where needed, it supplements that data with information produced in house, like the ongoing Motor City Mapping project of every one of Detroit’s nearly 400,000 land parcels as a step toward blight remediation. Then it gives the data away to anyone who wants it. Its model of a standalone, non-academic, data-only shop is one rare, if not unique, in the American urban landscape.

I spoke with Raleigh about the power of freely available data, why charts matter a great deal, and what it means for everyone to “have access to the same basic set of facts.”

Next City: Why does Data Driven Detroit exist?

Erica Raleigh: We’re here because we believe in the power of information to drive and inform decision-making, and that everyone should have equitable access to that information in order to make the best decisions possible for themselves, their organizations and their communities. When we were founded, a lot of the rhetoric was around trying to understand how to target action and investments in a way that had meaningful impact. Folks trying to do that well were struggling, because they didn’t have enough information to understand whether their previous investments had made any impact at all, or what that impact might have been. That was the founding focus — that and ensuring that anyone who wanted to do work in our communities had access the same basic set of facts.

Back then, there was lots of data around, but it was housed in multiple departments, multiple agencies, multiple organizations. For one person to write a grant report, they had to go to 15 different departments and websites, and go knock on doors to find the data they needed. We’re becoming a one-stop shop.

NC: Your organization talks about a vision wherein “essential and unbiased information is used by all.” What does that mean and how does it work?

Raleigh: At the beginning, of course, we had to go out and collect data sets and build out our infrastructure. In the last two years or so we’ve done a deeper dive into how you make these data sets open and available to anyone who wants to use them. We set up the “Ask D3” request button. We send files to people. We’re now working on a new portal that’s putting the processed files up on the web so that people with higher-end technical skills can use them.

We also try to make it legible to non-data-geeks like ourselves. In very few cases, we approach that through report writing. We approach that a lot through visuals: Charts, graphs, maps — maps are a big deal for us — and infographics. Visuals are more appealing to most folks than the spreadsheets I enjoy staring at every day. It’s also something that you can take on the road with you. We do a lot of printed materials, especially one-page PDF maps. We can make those available to more people than just those who have access to the Internet and our website.

We’re also approaching things in terms of data literacy. We started last summer the first in a series of three institutes around the use of data, starting with just the basics, actually bringing together leaders and managers of non-profit organizations and municipal departments to share what’s available out there and some of the potential uses of the data, and we asked them how they would approach using data to solve problems.

NC: What about the “unbiased” part? That seems easier said than done.

Raleigh: It is. It’s a constant struggle in the data world. Integrity is something we value a great deal, and we actually have a lot of great internal discussions about maintaining it. We push back on one another, trying to do the best job we can in remaining objective and putting out facts that are as unbiased as humanly possible. We really avoid, for the most part, policy and advocacy. If we’re doing advocacy, it’s around open data.

NC: What good does mapping every one of the city’s parcels, like you’re doing with the Motor City Mapping project, actually do?

Raleigh: The 2009 Detroit Residential Parcel Survey for us shows a lot of potential of what can be done with this new data set, because it’s almost the same. It’s just bigger and better. It gives us a grounding in reality of, “Here’s what exists right now. Where can we take this going forward?”

For example, we work with the Community Development Advocates of Detroit using the survey data to develop a typology of neighborhoods across the city at a block level. [See above.] And in select neighborhoods throughout the city, we come with the data on these huge printed maps and have community conversations. Instead of having to subjectively talk out how we feel about particular blocks in the neighborhood, we can look at it on a map. We can all agree on the same basic set of assumptions. We can say, “Okay, this block right now is clearly mostly empty. But where can it go from here?” It’s probably not going to, in the next year, have 30 houses built on it. But what can we do with it? How can we as a community group effectively plan for our own neighborhood?

I’ll give you an outside example. In my spare time, I do research on public safety on a block scale in Detroit, comparing incidents of crime of different types to a host of different neighborhood characteristics. Detroit is the only place that has the data on such a fine grain with such reliability. Now we’ll be able to start out some levels of causation. One interesting finding from that, by the way — since everyone is blight happy right now — is that blight isn’t correlated with crime. Instead, recently vacant houses that people moved out of last week are much more highly correlated than you’d expect, and only for certain crimes, like larceny or burglary, even controlling for population [and] socioeconomic status.

NC: You say that infographics are an important part of your work making the data you collect legible to the public. Can you pick your favorite chart?

Raleigh: The Woodward Corridor Initiative is a really fun one:

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.

Tags: detroitshared citybig datablightcivic techcrimeopen govmapping