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

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.

Yesterday, someone asked me what unmet needs I see most often at nonprofit organizations. I responded that I’d like to see nonprofits leverage data more effectively.

Organizations like Hacks/Hackers Boston know the wealth of information that data-oriented journalists can find by digging through the Internet. From the Sunlight Foundation‘s forthcoming website on how politicians vote to the Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch project, there are many resources available online which can make nonprofits’ work easier.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council in Boston hosted an event earlier this year called Data Day. Citizens and nonprofits learned how to use data – for example, information from the Boston Indicators Project and MetroBoston DataCommon – to find out what is happening in their neighborhoods.

In general, I see many nonprofits lack awareness of how to tap into these resources and find out the dirt on pollution, income, crime, violence, health, and other social issues. Now that news organizations are understaffed, it’s becoming even more important for nonprofits to hire staff or contractors who can step in, understand the problems, and use computer-assisted reporting skills to find the answers to these socially important questions.

I am excited to see that the Knight Foundation has funded a data-sharing project for environmental justice organizations in Michigan. I’m also excited to see the growth of indicator databases in communities outside Boston. These databases track community well-being. Two of the databases are the National Neighborhood Indicators Project and the Community Indicators Consortium.

A recent article claiming that 84 percent of one’s Facebook page fans are lurkers raised an interesting question for me. How does one get communities to “gel” online? What are some of the tricks of the trade that help web communication professionals engage their audiences?

The ideas below are based on my experiences with organizing meetups, including NetSquared Boston; producing news content for an online community of graduate students and professors; and building the audience of an energy-related newsletter.

1. Make Your Most Important Content Visible

Journalists know that the first few seconds of reading will determine whether your audience reads the whole article or puts down the paper. Your title, subheading, and any content that is highly visible will attract readers’ attention.

Here are a few tips:

  • Choose clear, attention-getting headlines
  • Test your web content using the Five Second Test
  • Think about the first sentences you use
  • Choose interesting topic headings

2. Organize Your Site Logically

Take a look through a website usability guide and use those principles to organize your content clearly. Will a new visitor to your site know where to find information? Try to keep the number of levels in your site map to a minimum. This will make it easier for website visitors to find the content they need.

3. Use Your Audience’s Favorite Media

If you know how your audience already finds information, you can communicate with them using their preferred media. For many audiences in the United States, e-mail is still the best way to present information. If you make your content conversational and entertaining, you can also use Facebook to reach a large audience. Sites like Twitter and Quora can give you access to professionals in specialized fields like journalism and IT. Some audiences spend long hours on YouTube.

If your audience isn’t RSS-literate, they won’t subscribe to your blog’s news feed. On the other hand, if your audience knows how to subscribe to your meetup calendar, they may be watching all of your events without even being members of your meetup. Twitter users may add you to private lists without following you openly.

4. Build Your Niche

What does your website provide that other websites do not? Is your meetup unique, or is it the same as another meetup in the next town? Like running a business, running an online community requires that you provide added value. You should make your content easy to use and worthwhile.

If you have a niche for which there is not much demand, recast your focus so that it addresses needs that people know exist. You may be absolutely convinced of a need that others don’t see or recognize; this will make your job more difficult. I’ve seen scientists experience this problem often. Simplifying your message and making it convincing can help your website gain support.

5. Know Your Audience’s Priorities

Knowing the priorities and values of your audience can help you move your website into their “to visit” list. What do they need to know? Can you make their lives easier by providing networking or useful information? If your site looks like a resource library, you should work to make your content more immediately useful and action-oriented.

Some audiences dislike spending time online and will not surf in search of resources. Other audiences may own mobile phones but not computers. The more you know about what matters to your audience, the easier it will be for you to integrate your site or community into their everyday workflow.

Ask your audience what they want to see. You may be surprised. I used a poll in a meetup recently. I discovered – unexpectedly – that most of the respondents wanted to do outdoor activities this spring and summer. Because I did this poll, I’ll schedule the kinds of activities they requested.

Since it’s Earth Day, that gives me an opportunity to talk about eco-friendly electronics.

Environmentally speaking, bloggers and other electronics enthusiasts aren’t innocent. We use and discard electronics while consuming energy from coal-fired power plants. Our computers and cell phones also contribute to air and water pollution during their mining, manufacturing and disposal.

For a simple overview of how this cycle happens, check out The Story of Electronics:

As the video explains, companies design our electronics for a relatively short life cycle – less than two years. After that, recycling companies dispose of the electronics unsafely overseas. The workers who produce the electronics suffer from miscarriages and cancer.

What’s a responsible electronics enthusiast to do? The good news is that you have many opportunities to break the cycle.

Buy Refurbished or Eco-Friendly Electronics

Eco-friendly cell phones are starting to show up on the market. This is important because some of the materials inside cell phones come from nations that have few protections for mine workers. CNet has reviewed some of the eco-friendly phones.

The Green Electronics Council has created a certification called EPEAT for eco-friendly computers. EPEAT-certified computers are manufactured with more recycled components and fewer toxic chemicals than other computers, leading to less hazardous waste.

Repair Your Electronics

Although it may be convenient to buy a shiny new computer when your old one has lost its charm, resist the urge to shop. Fix your computer instead.

You may not be able to impress your friends with new gadgets if you fix your electronics instead of throwing them away, but you’ll be preventing pollution-related health problems in China, India and/or Africa. So you can give yourself a gold star for that. Maybe someday your friends will consider your computer hip and vintage, like an old record player.

Plug into Renewable Energy

If your utility company offers a renewable energy option, buy into it. The cost difference is often minimal. If you want to impress your roommates or family, buy your own solar panel. Energy experts say solar panels are in style.

Save Power

Turn off electronics and power strips when you aren’t using them. Turn down the brightness on your cell phone and computer screens. Uninstall apps which keep your phone using extra energy. Adjust your power-saving control panel settings. Beware of entertaining screen savers – the odds are that they aren’t helping you save energy.

Donate Unwanted Electronics

If your old computers and cell phones are gathering dust, donate them instead of recycling them. You should clean your hard drive before donating your computer.

Domestic violence shelters reuse cell phones after removing identifying information. When people in these shelters have cell phones, they can call for help in emergencies. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence accepts phone donations.

Nonprofits often accept donated computers. Check out their wish lists during the holiday season. World Computer Exchange will send your computer to a community organization in a developing nation.

What choices have you made to reduce the environmental impact of using electronics?

This post is inspired by Lee Worden’s article “Counterculture, Cyberculture, and the Third Culture: Reinventing Civilization, Then and Now”. Worden says the counterculture of the 1970s gave rise to the movements that have since spawned Google, WikiLeaks and Wired Magazine. Worden describes these movements as both idealist and libertarian.

What do these technology movements believe? Worden identified four central threads.

  1. Belief that access to tools is empowering on its own
  2. Rejection of bureaucratic systems in favor of new options
  3. Creation of flexible social structures to accomplish goals
  4. Idealization of individual freedom
Lava lamp
Like futuristic technology, lava lamps were also idealized in the 1970s.

Peter Taylor, a professor at University of Massachusetts-Boston, has diagrammed the trends in the article.

I’m somewhat critical of the four assumptions above, even though I can see their value.

Does Access to Technology Solve Problems?

Access to tools alone doesn’t create the social outcomes communities may desire. I’ve seen examples of this in the nonprofit world and in K-12 education. If technology isn’t seen as relevant, practical and useful, a community may not respond positively to it.

Sometimes, poorly designed or misapplied technology can be confusing or even destructive. When I was in engineering school, there was a joke circulating which said the Ph.D. exam for mechanical engineers involved being locked in a room with a saber-toothed tiger, a disassembled gun, and a user’s manual written in Swahili. Not every technological solution is a useful one.

Should Crowd-Sourcing Replace Paid Work?

Creating flexible social structures can have both advantages and disadvantages. Many of these organizations rely on volunteer labor. Their volunteers work within structured institutions during the day and then spend their free time on these other projects. One could argue that citizen journalists are not being paid adequately for their time.

To what extent should these modern, flexible technology organizations rely on crowd-sourced, unpaid or underpaid labor? As the worldwide market becomes more competitive, people in technical and creative occupations may find that volunteers are making their jobs obsolete. Fact-checking, a traditional staple of journalism, could be replaced by community-sourced editing.

Should Individual Voices Replace Experts and Organizations?

Technology projects find ways to reward and encourage problem solving and innovation. They reach beyond bureaucracies into the community. Some of these projects are housed within universities. There are many crowd-sourced projects going on today – from gathering science data to fact-checking news articles. The organizers of these projects are often enthusiastic about the value of individual voices.

The shortcomings of overvaluing individual voices already show among bloggers, where a chorus of individual voices can sometimes drown out sources that are more reliable. On the other hand, sometimes projects like Wikipedia can eclipse encyclopedias.

Despite the disadvantages of the idealized, crowd-sourced, egalitarian model of creating technology and content, this approach can be very productive if used skillfully. Google uses this model for much of its work.

What Matters More – Innovation or Community?

As Worden says, this popular online business model “blurs the line between the company and its customers, essentially encouraging customers to create the product, and then selling the customers and their work to each other and keeping the profits.” This model benefits businesses, but doesn’t necessarily support the best interests of the communities around them.

Worden worries about the potential of giving inventors infinite freedom to create products which may be dangerous or poorly designed. He believes community values should come first.

The story of the gun and the saber-toothed tiger shows that sometimes relationships should matter more than technology. If the engineering student focuses on assembling the gun, it’s too late. It’s the student’s ability to calm the tiger that may save the day.

In journalism, there’s a relatively new movement called Hacks/Hackers. I call it a movement because it appears to be more than a trend or isolated group. Journalists who are part of Hacks/Hackers seek to mix tech smarts with journalism savvy.

Is Journalism Marrying Technology?

Because I got an engineering degree before studying mass communication, it’s fascinating for me to watch this movement expand. Infographics, multimedia, Web 2.0 and other techniques of the information revolution combine with journalism’s traditional tools of the trade to create hybrid communication styles. For storytellers with graphic design and video experience, the possibilities are endless.

My first encounter with the idea of technologically advanced storytelling came via mashups. Since then, I’ve seen alternatives proliferate online. For example, Beth Kanter’s blog uses infographics and video on nonprofit communication to amplify her message. I am interested in moving this blog in that direction by adding more multimedia content.

Does Social Media Use Move Writers Closer to Gonzo Journalism?

A recent blog post reflecting on a Hacks/Hackers meetup in Boston brings up the question of how personal storytelling affects objectivity in new media journalism. Telling personal stories is a standby for me on this blog; in the world of Web 2.0, having a personality is an advantage. But this makes it difficult for writers to maintain the professional distance from their stories that many journalism organizations have expected.

While I follow rules about balance – which depend on the project I’m doing and its audience – my blog does have a personality. This doesn’t mean every aspect of my life belongs in my Twitter feed. But it does mean that social media has changed the way I write and has moved my blogging style away from traditional newswriting toward a fusion of the personal and the professional.

As a graduate student, I drew on my personal experience of living in urban communities to develop my research and thesis. That certainly colors my perspective on writing about environmental justice. In the interest of balance, I should say I’ve also worked in electronics factories and research labs which contributed to chemical pollution. I became interested in life cycle analysis while I was working in one of these factories.

There is a tradition called gonzo journalism in which writers go out and state their experiences without claiming objectivity. To the extent that social media makes journalists show their personal experiences, blogging may be bringing us closer to that style of writing. The popularity of reality TV shows that being oneself can appeal to audiences. I’m not suggesting that journalists’ lives should be open books, or that social media should make us all write like Hunter S. Thompson, but it’s interesting to watch how writers merge the personal and professional in their social media work.

If you like this blog, visit my Facebook page and Twitter feed.