Data can be integrated seamlessly into stories that benefit communities, presenters told nonprofits and journalists at a conference on June 21. The event demonstrated how one can tap into information sources about communities whose voices are often unheard.

Data Day 2013, held at Northeastern University in Boston, showcased how successful data-based stories engage people on an emotional level. Metropolitan Area Planning Council, Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs, and The Boston Foundation co-hosted the conference.

The morning keynote showed how a team from The Boston Globe accomplished this goal while writing about the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood. Their finished project, 68 Blocks, includes photos, graphs, stories, videos, and an e-book.

“It took months and months to win even the beginnings of trust,” said senior assistant metro editor Steve Wilmsen. After hearing about how a 14-year-old boy was shot, Wilmsen wanted to “pierce the veil of preconceptions” surrounding the neighborhood. As the finished project said, “In a neighborhood known for gunfire, it’s easy to overlook beauty.”

“Half the time, the best things that I got were when I pretended I wasn’t there,” said reporter Meghan Irons. Another reporter, Akilah Johnson, avoided carrying her notebook and used a cell phone and even a church program as substitutes.

The newspaper sourced the “Voices of Bowdoin-Geneva” montage from community pictures found on Instagram. The images show graves, graduations, police, friendships, and family stories.

A survey asked youth whether they thought they would ever spend time in jail. 85.7% said, “No.” 91.7% of the respondents said they had not been in any gangs during the previous year.

The newspaper placed a massive public records request. In the finished project, a map of quality of life indicators shows problems with housing and basic utility services are common in the neighborhood. A second map shows homicides and shootings.

In the workshop “Engage Youth through Data and Mapping,” teenagers from Urbano Project described making public art to communicate data. They made sculptures dramatizing statistics about the MBTA, including crime figures and wait times. They wore the finished sculptures to a festival and talked with passersby about the data.

The teenagers used orange and black plastic discs and small metal weights to build wearable sculptures showing the transit statistics. They also attached painted whistles to t-shirts to depict a graph of various types of crime. All of the materials came from a recycling center in Lynn.

The group painted the whistles different colors to show the different types of crime. 70 percent of the crimes were fare evasions, 9 percent were considered violent crimes, and 15 percent were acts of assault or vandalism.

“We were pleasantly surprised by how transparent the T is with their data,” said Alison Kotkin, a staffer from Urbano Project.

The panel “Storming the Gates of City Hall and Corporate America: Open Data vs. Privacy and Community Change” presented provocative information about our collective privacy – or lack thereof. The presenters also offered tips for nonprofits.

“I usually start all my talks by apologizing on the behalf of all computer scientists everywhere,” said Dr. Latanya Sweeney, who works at Harvard University’s Data Privacy Lab.

“Most data sharing is hidden,” Sweeney explained. “It’s that lack of transparency that causes individuals harm.” She said 1/3 of Fortune 500 companies make hiring, firing and promotion decisions based on health data. 33 states share or sell personal health information. And it’s not difficult for organizations to identify individual patients within these data sets.

Sweeney said computer scientists can solve the problems they have created by following models similar to Google’s.

How can nonprofits get started working with community data? The panel provided many tips. Professor Michael Johnson of UMass-Boston said community organizations can access data and assistance through sources such as:

David Luberoff, a senior project advisor at Harvard University, encouraged Boston-area nonprofits to sign up on the BARI website to connect and collaborate.

A shorter version of this story was published on the website

If you’re a blogger or independent journalist, do you know your legal rights and risks? If not, there are organizations online that can help you.

Today, experts from Harvard University and Boston University explored journalists’ rights in a panel called “Newsgathering and the Law: Hot Topics for Citizen Journalists in Massachusetts.” They provided many practical legal tips for writers who work outside of traditional media.

The panel was part of a conference on citizen journalism, “Filling the News Gap in Cambridge and Beyond: Citizen Journalism and Grassroots Media,” which took place at the Cambridge Public Library.

Traditional news organizations in the United States have extensive legal resources that independent bloggers and journalists lack, said Jeffrey Hermes, director of the Digital Media Law Project (DMLP) at Harvard University. In response to this need for legal advice, the DMLP has developed an online legal guide.

The panelists delved into strategies for requesting public records, attending civil and criminal trials, making video and audio recordings in public places, and handling concerns about defamation.

“Records really drive our investigative reporting,” said Joe Bergantino, director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) at Boston University. “It’s one thing to get someone to tell you something. It’s another thing to have a document that proves what they’re saying.”

NECIR sends out public records requests about a wide range of subjects – from sewage discharges to college sexual assaults.

Bergantino calls organizations weekly after sending them requests for information. He also contacts alternate sources and uses leaked documents. “Sometimes it’s a painful process,” he said.

Bergantino recommends that journalists ask for electronic data rather than print data to save time. But often, staff send data in print so they can cross out confidential information. Legally, organizations are required to tell journalists why they are removing the information.

“Sometimes, we get documents where it’s mostly Sharpie on the page,” said Hermes.

Organizations are allowed to charge journalists money for providing data, but must spell out the line items and use reasonable cost estimates if they plan to charge over $10, Bergantino said. However, organizations cannot charge money for answering questions and are under no obligation to provide general information to reporters.

Both civil and criminal trials are usually open to journalists and bloggers, Hermes said. Courts may make exceptions to this rule under special circumstances. A journalist or blogger may stand up and object to the closure of a trial.

In Massachusetts, videotaping police without their consent has led to arrests, said Christopher Bavitz, assistant director of the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard University. These arrests happened because a Massachusetts law prohibits wiretapping. However, a court decided that public videotaping of police was a legitimate activity in this state.

The legal rights of journalists and bloggers vary from state to state. In some states, Hermes said, bloggers and independent journalists have less protection from defamation lawsuits than newspaper reporters do.

For more information about the legal rights and responsibilities of bloggers and journalists in the United States, visit the websites of the Digital Media Law Project and the Online Media Legal Network.

Sometimes a picture is worth 200 Twitter follows. That’s what Ceres‘s online communications director, Brian Sant, learned when he ran a campaign to stop natural gas flares in North Dakota. Oil companies use these flares to burn away unwanted natural gas they do not plan to save or sell.

North Dakota’s natural gas flares are visible from the night sky and rival major cities in their brightness. Sant circulated the following photo of the night landscape of North America via social media and email. The response was electric. Writers picked up the story.

North Dakota gas flares light the night sky
A photo from Ceres’s campaign to stop natural gas flares in North Dakota.

Sant showed the results of this campaign at New England Women in Energy and the Environment‘s March 14 panel discussion, Social Media Success in the Energy and Environmental Sectors. He also described how he uses podcasts, videos and infographics to make data attractive for social media distribution.

Sarah Finnie Robinson, founding partner at Practically Green, talked about her exploration of the nuances of behavior change. Working with an enthusiastic group of interns and staff, she develops social software that companies and individuals can use to alter their environmental behavior.

Practically Green is building on the current wave of interest in gamification – making activities more like computer games – and integrating that approach with social media. The resulting product makes conserving water and other resources less like doing a chore and more like using Facebook.

“You’re not alone,” one of Robinson’s slides said. Robinson wants her software to engage people in communication, not just give them tasks to do in isolation. Based on the rapid expansion of demand for her product, this approach is certainly working.

Cindy Jolicoeur, vice president of Marketing Drive, used a different tactic in her work with the Mass Save energy efficiency program. She leveraged consumer interest in sharing information about deals and taking advantage of discounts to build the fan base for the Mass Save Facebook page from around 2,000 to over 15,000. These likes came as a result of targeted promotions and advertising across multiple media. Consumers developed a relationship with Mass Save and used the page to ask questions about energy efficiency.

“People want to connect with people,” said Cindy Hoots, corporate social responsibility account director at Cone Communications. She encouraged the audience to be informal on social media. Being able to respond on the fly is crucial, she said. She recommended keeping an unofficial FAQ on hand to use in response to stakeholder comments.

“Not all these stakeholders are friendly,” Hoots said. “Some can be a thorn in your side. Others may have an activist bent.”

Building relationships with stakeholders is a complex process, Hoots said. First, one needs to identify who they are. Second, one needs to understand their values and priorities. Third, one needs to learn how to reach them. And that’s just the first phase of action. One also needs to prioritize influencers, reach out to them, and offer them resources they want.

Hoots recommended two online tools for identifying influencers: Traackr and SocMetrics. These sites can give one basic information about the behavior of influencers and help one develop a plan for building relationships.

There are many ways communicators can engage stakeholders and build support for sustainable actions. This discussion demonstrated how Twitter, Hootsuite, Facebook, and other social media tools can support energy and environmental organizations in reaching their goals successfully. Sometimes, all it takes is a surprising picture.

In November, I withdrew into the snowy environment of northern Massachusetts to reflect on my goals for the coming year. I live next to a park belonging to the Trustees of Reservations, so bluejays and nuthatches kept me company while I wrote. Before and after work, I spent hours sifting through my ideas about what to cultivate – and what to prune back – during the coming year.

A nuthatch (Source: Terry Sohl)

I took a three-week vacation from Twitter to reduce the “noise” in my environment. Surrounded by the peace and quiet of the wildlife refuge, I made some difficult decisions about my priorities and commitments for the coming year.

  • I chose to offer the services that match my personality, background and interests. So I rewrote the skills, experience and bio pages of this website – as well as my LinkedIn profile. These pages now show my commitment to working on writing and technology projects that have social benefits. They also emphasize my experience in engineering and fascination with the way things work.
  • I made the difficult decision to close out my media relations contract and focus on content production – writing, website editing, and social media outreach. I gave notice to my client on January 2nd and am currently seeking a new project to replace that contract.
  • Translating science content is very satisfying for me. The more technical it is, the better. Working with an MIT professor on a physics book earlier this year showed me that not only do I have the “chops” for hard science, I relish covering it. I feel confident promoting my services to academics and technology professionals. I plan to seek out more science-intensive projects during the coming year. I am comfortable working with clients anywhere in the United States.
  • Although I want to keep at least one nonprofit project on my calendar at any time, I don’t plan to specialize in working for nonprofits. I am very interested in partnering with green businesses and universities and combining projects from different sectors. I recently signed up to do a long-term blogging project for a brownfield remediation business and plan to take on other similar projects.
  • I’m in the process of retooling NetSquared Boston, the meetup I co-organize, to make sure that it addresses unmet needs within the nonprofit tech community. My leadership role in NetSquared Boston gives me many professional opportunities, including networking and low-cost computer training. I plan to refresh some of my web development and software skills soon to stay current with the state-of-the-art technology that is coming out each year.
  • Although I was considering moving to Denver or Chicago earlier, I now plan to stay in Massachusetts for the next few years. I visited family in Chicago in early January and made the decision while I was there. Although I miss Chicago, there are many reasons for me to stay in Massachusetts.
  • Finally, I have a resolution to take more risks with writing and journalism this coming year. I want to go to events like the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston, take the leap toward doing projects that are outside my comfort zone, and continue to experiment stylistically as a writer.

I’ve pruned back my commitments from 2012 now so that new ideas can flourish. If the flower that I am attempting to cultivate has a name, it’s a “science and technology writing flower.” It probably looks like this image:

Fractal flower
Fractal flower (Source: 123RF)

Identifying and following my dreams was what led to my success in graduate school. After a year of freelance work, stopping to take time to smell the roses and retool my approach to my career goals was exactly what I needed this winter.

This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

How can nonprofits build diversity awareness into their communication? There are no easy answers. But I find it helps to think of diversity-friendly communication as a tapestry. If you weave diversity awareness into each aspect of your outreach, you’ll see better results than you would if you tacked it on at the end.

That’s the approach my former coworker Dr. Sherrill Sellers recommended when we wrote the CIRTL Diversity Resources. Although the Diversity Resources were written for university instructors, nonprofits can use similar approaches. I recommend checking out our case study collection if you are thinking of organizing facilitated conversations about diversity.

When we were producing the Diversity Resources, we sifted through many university workbooks on creating welcoming climates. We found that a band-aid approach to diversity-friendly communication may be a step in the right direction, but it is just a step. More needs to be done.

After the Be the Media! conference in Boston on Dec. 6, I wrote the following list of questions to help organizations communicate inclusively. Items 1, 2 and 6 are partly based on comments by our facilitators, Elena Letona and Kathleen Pequeño.

  1. Whom do you ask for their opinion? If you look at whose voices are absent from your decisions, you may find some gaps. Consider having conversations, surveys and focus groups to include unheard stakeholders. For example, if you are working on an environmental issue in a low-income community, remember to ask for community feedback. This is especially important if there is a language barrier.
  2. Are your communication channels working? Make sure not to rely exclusively on the Internet if you want to reach a diverse base of potential supporters. Consider mobile-friendly websites and phone apps. Low-income young people often browse using their phones. Test drive new approaches to see what works.
  3. Is your communication jargon-free, easy to understand, and interesting? Remember, your audiences are not required to listen to you, even if you’re communicating vital health information about disease prevention or disaster awareness. Think about the style of language you’re using. If you use research language with non-specialists, your message may be ignored or misinterpreted. Ask your audiences for feedback.
  4. Is your message relevant? Why should your audiences care about the issues that matter to your organization? If you get to know them and learn what matters to them, your communication will be much more on target than it would be otherwise.
  5. Have you stepped outside your office to visit your audiences lately? How well do you know them? The more you develop  relationships, the better your communication will be.
  6. Have you considered partnering with or hiring messengers from underrepresented groups? Try crowdsourcing media, inviting people to tell their own stories via videos or blogs, and asking questions to draw out answers. You can use the results to develop stories for funders, decision makers, and media.
  7. Do you ask for constructive criticism? If you only focus on positive stories, you won’t see the roots of problems.
  8. Are your events, jobs and internships accessible to people who earn less than a middle-class income? Holding fundraisers with lower ticket prices, reducing reliance on alumni networks for hiring, and paying interns who can’t afford to take unpaid internships are three steps you can take to make your organization more welcoming.

Weaving ideas like these into your communication and outreach can help you develop real relationships with communities rather than being seen as an outside agency. The more you make your communication two-way – listening, respecting community comments, and taking an interest in others – the better your results are likely to be. Seek to understand before seeking to be understood.

This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

The Boston Foundation launched a new resource for community organizations and media on November 27 – the Boston Indicators Project website. The site now contains data visualization tools, thanks to a collaboration with the Institute for Visualization and Perception Research at UMass Lowell.

“Data and reports alone do not produce change,” said Charlotte Kahn, Senior Director of the Boston Indicators Project. To create change, data must lead to action. And community organizations can use data to illuminate the challenges they face.

One way the Boston Indicators Project website helps nonprofits build momentum for social action is by giving communicators the visual tools to tell strong stories to reporters.

“Data is the new sexy,” said John Davidow, Executive Editor at WBUR. Davidow participated in a panel of journalists who described the ways they wanted to use community data to tell stories about poverty, unemployment and crime.

If data-based stories look sexy to journalists, nonprofits in the Boston area can easily leverage this website to earn media attention for their work – much of which happens under the radar of the press.

The website covers 10 sectors: Civic Vitality, Cultural Life & the Arts, Economy, Education, Environment & Energy, Health, Housing, Public Safety, Technology and Transportation. Nonprofits working in any of these areas can download data from the site and use them for media outreach.

For example, the map of pollution hazards below might be useful to advocacy organizations. The color red indicates the highest concentration of sites while white shows the lowest concentration.

Environmental justice map
A map of environmental hazards in the Boston area. (Data source: Metropolitan Area Planning Commission)

There are many ways to present the data you want – once you have found them. Rahul Bhargava, a research specialist from the MIT Center for Civic Media, spoke about visualization techniques during one of the PechaKucha talks at the launch. He described using evocative images, annotated graphs, physical models, and community-created art. He also mentioned software such as Wordle, Taxego, Prezi and Omnigraphsketcher.

Communication with media can and should go beyond press releases. Community-created art projects and physical models of data may attract reporters’ attention and build support for nonprofits’ work. Even a flash mob could illuminate statistics from the Boston Indicators Project.

The UMass Lowell team which developed the visualizations for the Boston Indicators Project is also collaborating with organizations in other cities. For more information about mapping projects outside Boston, visit

Note: Although you can download all of the data sets from the Boston Indicators Project website into Excel currently, not all of the visualization pages are working yet.

This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

Where can you see a poet reading her work underneath a gray sedan? Tonight, Wayne’s World of Automotive Services in Beverly, Massachusetts hosted a reading where poets stood at a podium underneath an auto lift, surrounded by tools and fluorescent lights.

Colleen Michaels
When she isn’t standing underneath cars, Colleen Michaels teaches writing at the Montserrat College of Art.

The event was part of the Improbable Places Poetry Tour, a rotating performance night which has also visited a bike shop, a tattoo parlor, a swimming pool, a roller skating rink, and other locations. In each setting, the poets set up shop for one night, surrounded by a cheerful audience and a cameraman from Beverly Community Access Media.

Poetry reading at Wayne's World of Automotive Services
A red light from a passing emergency van illuminated the poetry reading.

What’s poetic about cars? One might ask. In the red light of passing tow trucks and emergency vehicles, the audience heard how cars become part of one’s family and one’s life story. One poet even said her dress matched her father’s car. It was clear that cars are objects of affection to which we ascribe personalities. We also associate cars with being teenagers. Each generation remembers different cars and knows what it feels like to drive them.

The language of cars – “revved up,” “full throttle,” “shifting gears” – permeates American vocabulary the same way sports metaphors echo down the halls of Midwestern businesses. Like sports, cars are one of our central metaphors. When we play the game of life, cars are always by our side.

Wayne's World of Automotive Services
The poetry reading took place next to mechanics’ uniforms, toolboxes and an American flag.

Every day, we are surrounded by cars. Some of us evaluate strangers based on their car choices. When we meet a new person on the highway, we see the car he or she is driving, not the person at the wheel. Many of us depend on cars continually, driving for even short errands.

So it’s not surprising that we feel symbiotic with our cars. Hearing poets describe their relationships to cars tonight cemented that awareness for me.

An audio clip I recorded while listening to a poet named J.D. expresses this sentiment in one concise line:

“We were baptized in grease.”

The Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts’ Sustainability Leadership Summit 2012 on June 7 opened my eyes to the multidimensional value of supporting local businesses. This value is especially high when communities develop  business-to-business relationships.

Before attending the summit, I was already aware of how buying goods from local farms and supporting local tradespeople reduces the environmental impact of freight transportation. But, when I thought of supporting local businesses, I also thought of paying high prices for high-quality products. This perception may discourage some working class and middle class people from buying locally.

At the summit, I learned how much supporting sustainable, locally owned businesses can create a network of community resilience. Rather than being islands in the marketplace, businesses can form connections and support one another, building their local economies and creating jobs.

Andrew Meyer, co-founder of Vermont Soy and founder of Vermont Natural Coatings, described how businesses support each other in the small community of Hardwick, Vermont. Hardwick has attracted national attention because its network of local businesses generated over 100 jobs during the recession. A researcher concluded that the secret to Hardwick’s success was that local businesses supported one another. Business leaders socialized, collaborated, and shared resources. This resource sharing allowed the businesses to become more efficient and expand their operations.

Joe Grafton, Executive Director of Somerville Local First, described the massive growth of local business support networks in New England during the last few years. The number of networks has increased from three to 20. These groups are now scattered throughout New England. Many of them participate in awareness-raising campaigns such as Buy Local Week.

Tech Networks of Boston‘s CEO, Susan Labandibar, has created an infographic showing the advantages of supporting her locally owned business. Tech Networks spends 72 percent of its revenues within Massachusetts, produces 28 local jobs, invests in job skills training and tree planting, and uses a radically equitable pay scale for its employees.

Labandibar describes sustainable business practices as “generative” rather than “extractive.” Many speakers at the summit said that they want to see the role of business move toward a generative model. Sustainable businesses can partner with the communities they serve and share resources with the other businesses that are in their neighborhoods.

Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) has collected research on the benefits of encouraging locally owned business development. The advantages range from local economic stability to job creation and a stronger tax base. For more information, you can visit the websites of BALLE or the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

CommonWealth Magazine has reported the controversial funding and service cuts to Boston’s MBTA transit system hinge on an unlikely competition for dollars: snow removal vs. public transit. City leaders are concerned they will lack the resources to respond to a heavy snowfall and are considering cuts to public transit funding.

As far as I know, no one has seen the irony of this problem. Public transit reduces climate change, which is responsible for at least some of our increased snow and rain here in New England. Expanding and improving public transit should be part of our strategy for fighting climate change. In the face of increased weather risks, we should hurry to fund the MBTA and expand its routes and services.

Boston’s strategy for fighting climate change takes transit into account. The transit section of the city climate website doesn’t mention the MBTA, but the report A Climate of Progress mentions it repeatedly. Organizations like the T Riders Union have been struggling for years to improve the quality of services the MBTA provides. This fight would not be necessary if we saw the collective value of building a transit system that will outlast fluctuations in gasoline availability and price.

Joel Wool is an organizer at GreenDorchester. GreenDorchester’s recent and/or seed projects include DotBike, a summer farmers’ market, the Dorchester Community Co-op, the Dorchester Winter Farmers’ Market, the TNT Greenspace Master Plan, and urban agriculture.

How did you become involved in working with GreenDorchester?

I did an Americorps position in Dorchester with an organization where my supervisor was the executive director for GreenDorchester. I was doing the community events, web development, [connecting with] local resources… I transitioned from that generic work into environmental advocacy.

How is your experience working as an environmentalist in a multicultural, class-diverse community different from how it might be in another neighborhood?

One way I entered the topic is by thinking of public health, global health, environmental health, [and] global warming… There’s a lot of parallels in the ways people talk about global health and local environment… There’s a lot of issues of media [about] whose voices are heard.

The fact people have categories of global North and South [also applies to Boston]… In downtown Boston, people are healthier. In Dorchester, it takes longer [to get] things like Hubway… and there’s a media justice issue. There’s inequity in resources and in public amenities.

It’s harder to get things that are positive on people’s radar because violence has got everyone worried… You don’t read about community relations. There’s very serious local civic engagement in Dorchester and Mattapan. Neighbors really know each other. You don’t get that in other parts of Boston.

It takes different strategies to reach out to each community… A lot of it’s personal and trust-based.

What are some of the things that you do to be inclusive of people of different cultural backgrounds and income levels?

With extremely limited capacity, trying to get things multilingual, we use community partners to translate. If we have a Creole flyer, [we use] the Haitian listserv. Ethnic radio [is] a big one. Affordability, working to make that possible. [It’s] a huge issue, making sure the food cooperative and farmer’s market are promoted multilingual and multichannel.

When possible, we’ve given away bike lights and bike locks so safety is a free thing. We’ve given away free reusable tote bags and helped promote Renew Boston. All of these are things the city has money for.

Do you think that the environmental movement in Boston could do more to address these concerns? If so, what would you recommend that they do?

I would say that looking to local partners is essential and that does require financial help. City, state and federal groups need to find groups with established connections in the local community. [Local] groups have collapsed due to lack of funding… There’s this constant struggle for operational money. It’s very hard to get the money to pay people.

In the case of outreach to multi-ethnic communities, that’s very essential. [It might mean volunteering] to do the translation for a community meeting. It might mean spray painting… to do outreach.

Physical presence is a big thing. I’ve tried to make it there and introduce myself. To really believe you’re committed to everyone, people have to see you in person.

If you were going to introduce environmentalists from the rest of Boston to Dorchester, what places would you recommend they visit?

There’s a couple green space development projects – Nightingale Community Garden and the Talbot Norfolk Triangle. The Ashmont T station and the square around it [have] been redone. There’s public art, there’s a farmer’s market there in summer, and there’s a historical clock.

We did a multimedia historical tour with smartphones and [numbers you could call] at one site [in 2010 and 2011]. It’s called My Dot Tour. You could also leave your comments about what you were doing there. Last summer it was less theatrical but very multimedia.

Projects like that are great in areas that have a lot of history but people don’t really know. Dorchester is the largest, oldest neighborhood in Boston. Part of the economic development is the history.