Pitfalls & Potential: Building Community Capacity to Use Data

The idea of data-driven decision-making and its potential benefits is hardly new, nor is awareness of its dystopian potential. What is new today is the explosion of data being collected as a result of conversion to digital systems and the technological capacity available to process and learn from that data. New industries are being built on these capabilities and existing ones are being transformed, including politics and government.

These changes areexciting. We have the opportunity to use data to drive positive change, increase transparency, and achieve greater accountability in ways that have never been possible in the past. We should seize that opportunity.

But these changes are also dangerous. As we grapple with the ways social networking data are used to manipulate politics and civic discourse, we are also plagued by cases of data-driven decision-making gone wrong, from predictive policing software that simply automates the system’s existing biases to databases of gang members or debtors that devastate people’s lives on the basis of demonstrably inaccurate information. Too often we run well ahead of our capacity to safely manage and use the data we collect.

This is not just a national issue. It is also very much a local one. As cities pursue dreams of becoming “smart;” as police are tempted by the promise of automating hard, dangerous or costly parts of their jobs; as cities implement new practices in performance management and accountability, both the good and the bad of this new data-rich world are happening right here in our own communities and it is here that we must grapple with them.

And make no mistake: data is a critical part of the issue, but this is about more than data. In fact, I believe the challenge we face today is nothing less than how to rebuild our democracy for the 21st century. And I believe that any meaningful effort to face that challenge necessarily starts locally.

Indeed, in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville identifies “local government, that prolific seed of free institutions,” as a critical factor in the formation of the unique institutions of American democracy. It was then and continues to be today.

I should clarify just what is meant here by local government. Obviously the term includes city and county governments, but it is by no means limited to them. It includes the entire ecosystem of individual residents, community groups, governments, media, nonprofits, and businesses that collectively support and engage in local decision-making. A community where governance is limited just to the formal institutions of government is a poor community indeed.

I include the broader community for a very important reason. One of the important lessons learned over the last few decades of community organizing, civic engagement and civic tech is that achieving effective and equitable outcomes for all groups in our communities requires that we proactively and deeply involve all groups in the decision-making that yields those outcomes. That lesson is especially relevant to our ability to safely use data to achieve better and fairer outcomes for Asheville and for our neighbors throughout western North Carolina.

So what does that mean in concrete terms? Obviously that’s not a question I can answer fully in a brief essay, but I would suggest that our work centers on three primary efforts:

  1. Foster a local culture that values data in driving policy decisions and expects decision-makers to share that data and to engage with impacted communities around it.
  2. Build the capacity of community members to understand the value of data-driven decision-making and the dangers that we must guard against.
  3. Create tools and resources that empower community leaders to use data to inform policy and policy advocacy and establish baselines of agreed-upon authoritative data.

I will expand on this over the next few weeks. In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts. You can find me on Twitter as @ejaxon.

What’s the Code in Code for Asheville?

I was recently at meeting of NC brigades where we decided to change the name of Code for NC to the Open NC Collaborative. Both names were fine with me, but I share the concern for making the civic tech movement more inclusive and welcoming, and naming is an important part of that.

For just that reason I sometimes wonder whether we should rename Code for Asheville.

But I must admit resistance to the idea. Some of that is a valid concern about losing the brand we have established in our community. And, as a coder, I’m obviously one of those it makes feel included. But I’ve also felt like the narrow interpretation of ‘code’misses something important.

I’d like to take a stab at a broader one.

Code as in Software

The first, most obvious meaning of ‘code’here is a set of instructions to a computer. What we do is more than that, of course, but it acts as a kind of shorthand for the technical part of what Code for Asheville members do in bringing solutions to our communities.

Code in this sense has been a central part of our identity from the beginning.

We use code — our own and others’ — to tackle hard problems in new ways. We partnered with the City of Asheville to create an online, interactive version of their budget, helped homelessness advocates and the local NAACP use data to advocate more effectively for change in the issues they care about, repurposed used laptops to create a computer lab for the homeless, and provided a source of critical information for people rebuilding their lives after encounters with the criminal justice system.

All this is code, one way and another, so yes, we code. But the reason we code is less because we’re coders and more because code is at the heart of a transformation in how the world works. Digital has transformed the world. As people who understand that world, we can be useful in helping our governments and our communities catch up to the changes.

The critical skill here is helping others navigate and exploit those changes for good. Some of us do that with Javascript. Others simply understand how to use common tools like Facebook or Google to make data more accessible and useful to our communities and to inform important conversations.

Whether as coders or as users of others’ code, we certainly embrace this sense of ‘code’ in Code for Asheville.

Code as in Law

From the Code of Hammurabi to modern building codes, the word ‘code’ can also stand for the rules, laws and conventions that guide and constrain action and opportunity in our communities. When Code for Asheville successfully advocated for an open data policy, passed by the Asheville City Council in October of 2015, we were clearly engaged in this broader sense of ‘coding’.

But our advocacy for a change in the coding of society is much deeper than just getting laws changed.

When we collect and refurbish old laptops to create a computer lab for the homeless community and then begin teaching them how to maintain it themselves, we help bring to reality our vision that everyone participates in the new ways of doing things.

When our members teach community groups to use public data to claim a more active, collaborative role in tackling our community’s issues we are helping all the stakeholders explore a new relationship and balance of power between government and governed that is enabled by technology.

When we work with Code for Greensboro to turn our local reentry resources hub into a resource for every county in the state, we are leveraging the energy of local communities and the power of technology to create solutions that serve a larger community to which we all belong. That action not only brings a specific solution to a specific problem, but also builds new patterns of collaboration that we can build on.

In short, Code for Asheville is working not just to change not just laws, but also the unwritten rules about how things work and how things get done.

This role as re-coders of society is also what we claim in our name.

Code as in Code of Honor

Finally, there is the sense of ‘code’ as a set of principles to live by. This is the meaning that prompted me to write this essay.

I see Code for America brigades as a movement built on a moral code. We embrace the notion of government of the people, by the people, for the people and we understand that it means government becomes our personal responsibility — nobody is coming to save us. Ours is a code of showing up and doing the work.

Yes, we are about technology and yes, we act to change the ways our communities work, but this is the meaning I want us to claim most strongly. For me, more than anything else, this moral commitment to doing our part is what the ‘code’ in Code for Asheville stands for. It is this meaning of ‘code’ that every member of Code for Asheville, technical or not, can claim and proclaim with pride.

What Guides Me Daily

I was on a panel yesterday at the Code for Durham Civic Spark Day with a couple awesome co-panelists, Noel Isama from Sunlight Foundation and Erin Parish from the City of Durham. We had a great conversation and a lot of fun with each other and with a delightfully engaged and energetic crowd.

Moderator Sam McClenney prepared fall-back questions in case the audience turned out to be bashful. Unsurprisingly, the audience did not and we never got to them, which is exactly what should happen. Nevertheless I was a little disappointed because one question crystallized something for me:

What’s a key philosophy, quote or lesson that guides you in your daily life, as you work to be an advocate for positive change?

A couple well-known quotes immediately leapt to mind and they would have been fine. But as soon as they occurred to me, I also realized that, while inspiring, they don’t actually drive or guide me daily. And as soon as I thought that, I thought of the words that do. You might have heard them before:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. John 13:34

The tradition out of which that quote comes is deeply important to me, but I don’t need it to be important to anyone else. What is important is what it actually means.

Figuring that out will undoubtedly take the rest of my life, but I think I’ve figured out some key elements. And in the work I do now, I think I know the most important one.

Respect

In early 2014 I had recovered a bit from my previous job and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. All I knew is that I wanted to put my energy into making a positive difference.

I’d already stumbled into Code for Asheville, but hadn’t yet realized where that would lead. In fact, I was surprised to find my path seemingly heading toward journalism (in retrospect, with the strong intersection between the goals of civic journalism and civic tech, I’m no longer surprised).

As part of a ploy to set up a conversation with Jay Rosen of NYU, I wrote a post reviewing a book that expressed “doubt … over the prospects of an informed citizenry for the digital age.” Using the same data as the authors, I proposed a different framing of citizens’ behavior, one grounded in respect for their challenges and their creativity in overcoming them and leading to quite different conclusions about how journalists might respond.

A couple months later I’d landed squarely in the civic tech movement and was well on my way down the slippery slope that now has me working as a government bureaucrat :). And I realized that the story news producers tell about their readers has a perfect parallel in how we talk about citizens in a democracy, so I wrote about that too.

Go inside the walls of any city hall and you will find similar narratives.

If I had to name one thing that we in public service need to do to transform how local government works, it would be to change that narrative. And the only way to truly change the narrative is to change the underlying relationship that gives rise to it from one that ranges between condescension and disdain to one of deep respect.

For me, that’s what that quote is about: allowing ourselves to undergo a radical shift in relationship with our fellow human beings. Some days I do that really well, some days I do it pretty badly, but it remains my primary guide.

Treating Data Like a Strategic Asset

My recent post on shared data systems in the City of Asheville, NC introduced the idea that adding a dataset to our management and reporting repository is also a chance to be more proactive about how we manage that dataset. It’s an opportunity to decide exactly how to represent and document the data, who should have access to it, and how we keep it up-to-date. This is obviously a good idea — it only remains to figure out how.

Not surprisingly, that how turns out to be a challenge. Fortuitously, the day after I published the post, open data leader Andrew Nicklin of the Johns Hopkins Center for Government Excellence wrote that “the most important step you can take [to address data quality problems] is starting to treat your data like a strategic asset.” That idea — treating data as a strategic asset — turns out to provide a helpful foundation for figuring out how to realize our vision.

What makes data strategic?

Treating data like a strategic asset sounds great, but what does it actually mean? More fundamentally, just what makes a particular set of data “strategic”?

Internally it seems straightforward that the strategic value of a dataset should be tied to its ability to measure performance and to support decision-making in areas that the organization deems strategic. Externally, I believe the value of data is best measured by its ability to empower entrepreneurial activity for economic gain and improved civic engagement, something explicitly called out in many open data policies, including ours. Briefly, then, we may say data is strategic if:

  • It is used to improve decision-making that influences outcomes tied to strategic goals;
  • It is used by external actors to create economic or social value for the community.

What’s striking about those definitions is what they share: use. It is the use of the data that makes it strategic (or not). Thus, our approach centers on use and users.

Cultivating and empowering data users

If the strategic value of data lies in its use, then data with no users obviously can’t be strategic. Perhaps then we should avoid adding a dataset until a compelling use and set of users are identified?

That’s certainly an option, but we believe treating data as a strategic asset aligns better with the proactive approach proposed in the recent GovLab/Omidyar Network report on open data impact, which recommends that governments “take steps to increase the capacity of public and private actors to make meaningful use of open data”. Their recommendation pertains to external users of open data, but it applies equally well to internal users. The key is to create a relationship with data users and to actively support and expand their ability to make effective use of data.

Our work in this area is just beginning, but we are experimenting with several ideas:

  • Talk about it. Every chance we get we talk up our efforts to make data easier to access and use. What’s gratifying is that word has begun to spread: people are starting to come to us to talk about opportunities they see to use data to manage performance and and to communicate and collaborate with citizens.
  • Give users ways to tell us what they’re interested in. The new version of SimpliCity will let people subscribe to specific topics and datasets so that we can reach out to them when changes are in the works or to get user feedback on what we’re providing. We are also launching a new public records request portal that not only lets citizens access data from prior requests, but gives us a better window into the kinds of data that people are interested in.
  • Identify and connect with key data users in the community. We plan to hold outreach events for frequent open data users in the community, such as the local Code for America brigade, news organizations, advocacy groups and professional groups.
  • Provide ways for users to hold us accountable. There is no better quality-control mechanism than to have active users who depend on the quality of the data, but it is important to communicate clearly what they can expect and to give them an easy way to communicate issues to us. In addition to our efforts above, the infrastructure discussed in the next section will play a vital supporting role in accomplishing this.

Let metadata drive the data infrastructure

Creating relationships and maintaining conversation with users of the data is important, but what about the actual mechanics of maintaining high-quality metadata for our data? No matter how noble our plans and intentions, the minute we have to do something special to keep the metadata up to date is the minute it will begin falling behind.

Our big idea here is to turn the process around. Rather than try to keep metadata in sync with the data, why not let the metadata itself drive the entire data infrastructure? Maintaining metadata and maintaining data then become the same activity.

Behind-the-scenes look at the data infrastructure of a city.

That’s the idea that powers our new data management system, ComplexCity.* ComplexCity consists of a hierarchy of metadata directories together with a few scripts that use that metadata to create and maintain the data infrastructure. At the highest level, the system has three key design goals:

  1. Provide high-quality metadata to reporting and management data users,
  2. Maintain the integrity of the relationship between reporting and source data,
  3. Maintain the integrity of the relationship between the data and applications that use it.

The system is a work in progress, but currently there are scripts to:

  • Validate data set definitions against the associated tables in the target and (soon) source databases;
  • Create ETL jobs that move data from enterprise systems into the reporting warehouse;
  • Run the ETL jobs, accounting for dependencies between datasets; and
  • Generate API code and configuration for use in SimpliCity’s GraphQL server.

ComplexCity will also help us better hold ourselves accountable to users of the data through generated dataset dashboards. With the launch of the new version of SimpliCity, each dataset in the system will automatically get a dashboard that includes summary information about the data, quick links to APIs and downloads and, most importantly, all the metadata, including links to contact the data owners about any issues with the dataset. By exposing this metadata to our users, we hope to empower them both to make more effective use of the data and to help us ensure that it is high-quality and serves the needs of the community.

The road ahead

These plans are simple enough to state, but will entail an enormous amount of work in the months (and years) ahead. In carrying out that work, we will undoubtedly discover major gaps in our thinking as well as exciting opportunities to leverage what we’re building for even greater value. We’d love to hear your own ideas and critiques and would love even more to find ways to bring this approach to other local governments.


*The name was initially triggered by a joke — SimpliCitypowered by Complexity — but the more we thought about it, the more it grew on us. There is no getting away from the fact that the data infrastructure of a city is complex. ComplexCity is our approach to managing it.

Photo credit: The image above is Complexity by Mark Skipper.

Note: This post has been cross-published on DigitalSimplicity.io, the City of Asheville IT Services blog.