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 oicweave.org.

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.


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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.

There’s power in numbers. That was the consensus in the workshops I visited this Friday at the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission’s Data Day in Boston.

MAPC Data Day logo

The name “Data Day” may not conjure up visions of dramatic reversals of public policy. But the community advocates and data experts at the conference knew otherwise. Here are two stories they told about how data can change how we judge people and situations – both socially and legally.

There are many ways environmental organizations can use data to change conversations. The Knight Foundation funded a data-sharing project which bridged divides between environmental justice groups. Projects like this one can yield local stories for both traditional and social media. What chemicals are in your neighborhood’s backyard?

Although the EPA’s approach to reporting potential flooding may seem dry, reports on climate change indicators in the United States can also provide story ideas for journalists. If climate change produces floods or disrupts the growing season, superimposing those maps on maps of crop production could yield interesting results – especially for crops grown in low-lying areas. In some states, the answer to the question “What’s for dinner?” may be very different in a few years from what it is today.