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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Does environmental protection reduce the well-being of low-income people? A new discussion paper from Oxfam says it’s possible to improve the health and income of people living in poverty worldwide while still making environmentally sustainable choices. However, individual environmental policies may or may not help social well-being.

Oxfam uses an infographic to show the zone of sustainability required for global well-being. The graphic is in the shape of a doughnut; the inside ring is the requirements for human health and survival, while the outside ring is the requirements for reducing environmental impact. The paper’s author, Kate Raworth, believes we can live “within the doughnut.”

doughnut
A colorful doughnut. Source: stock.xchng.

Diagrams in the report show how close we are to living within this zone of sustainability today. Raworth recommends reducing food losses, improving transportation efficiency, insulating homes, and expanding women’s reproductive rights.

According to Raworth, environmental policies can be socially sustainable because the resources needed to improve the health and income of the poor, globally speaking, are much less than the resources used by the wealthy. The massive environmental impacts we face today are directly related to global disparities in wealth.

Advocating a reduced standard of living for the upper and middle classes is unlikely to win many allies in the United States. The Oxfam discussion paper has received no press coverage in the United States, according to Google News. I found the link to the paper on George Monbiot’s blog at The Guardian.

It’s reassuring to hear this “yes, we can” message amid the cries of concern over global warming.


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Reading Unscientific America was an eerie experience for me. This book is more disturbing than most of the news I read online.

What bothered me most wasn’t the waning support for science research and science journalism. It wasn’t the social distance separating scientists from most people in the United States, either… although that is part of the problem.

Because of my experience writing about diversity and science, I took the ideas a step further and reached a disturbing conclusion. When they avoid communication, outreach and interdisciplinary thinking, science organizations may be unintentionally and effectively excluding a very large fraction of the population: women and people of color.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some minority-serving universities in the United States base 20 percent of science professors’ tenure evaluations on community service. At other universities, that expectation would be unusual.

Some research says women turn away from science majors because they don’t believe scientists help people. This stereotype isn’t true; anyone who watches TV shows like ER or CSI will see science majors saving lives.

Image of a man with a laptop
Science doesn't necessarily look like this.

If the dominant message says scientists don’t care about the rest of the public, that could contribute to public apathy about science funding. The authors of Unscientific America make a persuasive argument that we should train scientists to do outreach – and fund full-time jobs for them in that field later.

Here is the message I’m concerned could be countering attempts to diversify the science workforce:

If you enjoy communicating or want to contribute to your community, don’t choose a science major.

I blog about the personal, everyday relevance of science because I know these stereotypes don’t reflect reality. In one new industry – green technology – there are signs that women are taking an interest in science because they see their work as a social contribution.

Science is everywhere. It is relevant. It changes the world around us all the time. Science is everyone’s story.