Are You a Data Geek or a Data Poet?

Are You a Data Geek or a Data Poet?

February 2012

By: Julianna Tschirhart
Program Coordinator, The Mel King Institute for Community Building

I have a confession to make: I am a data geek. I have been known to kill time by looking at the American Fact Finder website, exploring various zip codes in the New York Times Interactive Census Map, or planning hypothetical journeys on Google Maps. I find something fascinating about the link between numbers and geography, and it was comforting to know that I was in good company at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s Data Day last Friday, Jan. 27th.

Data Day is an annual conference co-sponsored by MAPC, the Boston Indicators Project at The Boston Foundation, and Northeastern University. The conference objective is to “help organizations and municipalities expand their capacity to use technology and data in innovative ways to advance their community and organizational goals” (About Data Day). The conference topic this year was “Using Data to Drive Community Change,” and over the course of the day, it became clear to me that data are powerful tools to wield in our fight to build equitable communities. In a combination of panels and workshop-sessions, I learned of the various initiatives of participating sponsors to make data more accessible, easy-to-use, and impactful in an effort to achieve a more equitable Greater Boston and nation.

One example is the MetroBoston DataCommon, a partner program of MAPC and the Boston Indicators Project, which offers a platform to analyze data and make maps on a novice to expert level. Users can check out preexisting visuals in the Regional Map Gallery on topics from public safety to education, or create their own maps by selecting preexisting data sets or importing their own. Adding to this democratization of data for the public, MetroBoston DataCommon gives users the option to edit or add to the maps made by others. Allowing your visualization to be public enhances the collaborative nature of the data exchange promoted by the website.

Using data to tell the stories of our communities was a prominent theme at Data Day. “Numbers are narrative” remarked John Davidow, Executive Editor of WBUR during the morning panel on the connection between data and storytelling. Data used skillfully can lure in listeners, give evidence to support claims on social justice issues, and help connect people to one another. In conjunction with the democratic media available at all our fingertips—Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. —data become even more influential tools for community builders. With data and grassroots storytelling, people can create a buzz and get legislators and other important players to take note of their issues.

The world of journalism and community organizing is changing. Advances in technology are allowing us access to the data we need to achieve equity in our communities. When we have the capability to translate reliable data into a narrative, we can create a movement. Rather than be content to look at data as a data geek, simply in awe of the numbers, I urge everyone to take advantage of the data available to us and become ‘data poets’—utilizing numbers to tell your community’s unique story and bring about change!

For more on data and community organizing, consider the upcoming Mel King Institute training, Making Use of Local Census Data.

Follow the Mel King Institute on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

Joe Kriesberg