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 MassNonprofit.org website

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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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.”