5 Lessons for Harnessing Data and Tech to Meet Community Needs

5 Lessons for Harnessing Data and Tech to Meet Community Needs

A community data intermediary in the Seattle area reflects on lessons learned in bridging between data, tech, and community-based organizations.

Putting the principle of designing solutions “with, not for” residents into practice can pose a challenge for those working with low-income communities to bridge economic and opportunity gaps. This is particularly true for civic tech and data experts seeking to leverage their distinct expertise to meet pressing community needs and address complex problems. Even after adopting a community-driven approach, making that commitment a reality can be challenging.

In our previous post, we reflected on our experiences as members of a public-private partnership in Seattle/King County. Here, we share five lessons we will carry into the next phase of their work. We hope our experience will help other cities looking to harness civic tech and data in a way that truly addresses community needs:

  1. Start with the problem, not the solution. From the start, we were committed to taking a community-driven approach to identifying a problem amenable to a civic-data-tech solution. But after months of leading with civic data and technology in our pitches to community-based organizations, it became clear that we were essentially offering a treatment, and then going to residents in search of symptoms. In our future work, we will strive to identify a high priority issue first, such as affordable housing, and then examine how data and tech might add value when developing solutions.
  2. Prioritize the community perspective. Projects have the greatest impact when they are built on authentic community values, respecting the diverse languages, educational backgrounds, and identities of those who live, work, and play there. Community voice should be integrated into as much of the project as possible – for example, by hiring or engaging community members in data collection, or by creating a community advisory board that has true oversight and control over the direction of the project.
  3. Build long-term, trusting relationships and commit to a continuing presence in the community. While this kind of relationship-building is ideal, our lean staffing model often forces us to rely on temporary student assistance. When students represent us in the field, we have found it important to assure communities that the relationship will endure beyond a student project. Similarly, community organizations have provided feedback that the impact of one-day “hackathons” is greater when tech developers continue their relationship with the community after the event, and are available to provide some kind of ongoing support. At a minimum, expectations about the length of engagement should be made clear at the beginning of a project.
  4. Offer multiple, structured opportunities to identify priorities, share perspectives about data, and bridge across sectors. Even in this digital age, it is important to build relationships face-to-face, especially when working with communities to reduce disparities. Our future work may include a series of in-person data walks or community cafés, within which neighbors can identify community concerns and discuss ways to address them. As discussions converge on specific issues and “civic data tech” solutions, we can invite relevant partners to join the project.
  5. Identify and nurture a data and technology champion within the community. Having someone with data expertise embedded as a staff member or committed volunteer in a community-based organization can strengthen the roles of data and tech in solving community problems. A good data champion can bridge gaps that might otherwise impede progress, and can advocate for the community in situations where the wealth and expertise of the tech world could create a power imbalance.

While every community is different, we believe these five lessons from Seattle/King County are a good start for anyone supporting collaborations between low-income communities and those who work in data and tech.

Seattle is a participating city in the Civic Tech and Data Collaborative, which harnesses the power of technology and data to make local governments and civic organizations more effective in meeting the pressing challenges of the 21st century. Led by three national organizations – Code for America, Living Cities, and the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership – the Collaborative is a two-year project that provides grants and technical assistance to seven urban communities around the country to improve civic tech and data ecosystems. Funding for this collaborative was made possible with support and partnership from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.


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