Pittsburgh’s Data Day: Using Civic Data to Spark Hands-on Community Engagement

Pittsburgh’s Data Day: Using Civic Data to Spark Hands-on Community Engagement

Even if you have a wealth of public data, it can be a struggle to engage diverse stakeholders who could use that information to improve their community. Pittsburgh’s Data Days are designed to tackle that challenge.

The public data landscape in Pittsburgh has quickly transformed over the past three years, from a place with little publicly-accessible community information to an environment where a considerable amount of data is available. Our challenge now lies in helping individuals build their capacity to interpret and apply public information to better understand what is happening in their community. We want residents to work with community organizations and local government to take informed action to improve their neighborhoods.

We think people in other cities can learn from and help inform our efforts to broaden and accelerate our community’s capacity to use civic data.

Broadening access to data

Today, residents have access to open data through the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, community indicators through the Southwestern Pennsylvania Community Profiles, and a pool of integrated data and reports through the Allegheny County Department of Human Services’ data warehouse. We believe that when people interact with these types of information, they have an improved sense of what’s happening around them, and are better-equipped to use this information to improve their community. We have been helping to build these capacities through our Data 101 data literacy training series, but we also are creating ways to engage people that may not consider themselves as data users, particularly residents who don’t already recognize the potential applications of civic data in their own lives.

For several years, the University Center for Social and Urban Research (UCSUR) held an annual Data User’s Conference, which brought in speakers from other communities to show what was possible with data. The event played an important role in helping to demonstrate the value of data to public-sector staff, nonprofit leaders, students, faculty, and heads of the philanthropic community.

Creating on-ramps to data

With so much more data accessible, the University Center for Social and Urban Research (UCSUR) wanted to redesign its annual data user conference to encourage more people to adopt and interact with information as we work to build a culture of data use. The result was a day-long, drop-in public Data Day, that engaged over 150 participants in a day of activities and demonstrations spread over ten interactive tables located throughout the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s gallery space.

In designing the city’s first Data Day, we used the model of the “Discovering Technology’ or “DiscoTech” event developed by the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, who also offered support and guidance as we planned our event. In addition to attracting our User’s Conference audience, we also hoped to reach people that didn’t necessarily have an understanding of how data affects their lives. Many residents, for example, don’t know that daily crime data from their neighborhood is available each night. Likewise, many local policymakers or community advocates interested in transit infrastructure probably aren’t aware that comprehensive data on bike share usage is available and can inform transportation conversations.

Instead of a presentation-only format as it had been in the past, the event was a way for data users to share their work through conversation and participatory activities. We encouraged our activity leaders to adopt a “Show and Play” format – in other words, develop a brief demonstration followed by a hands-on activity. Our station leaders offered activities that encouraged participants to share ideas with elected officials, get their hands on a drone, watch 3D-printers create maps of national unemployment data, and go on a data scavenger hunt. We also used the recruitment process as an opportunity to seek out data users and interesting projects we weren’t yet aware of. One of the most-engaging activities we discovered as part of our outreach was by a storyteller who has been documenting her quest to walk down every street in the City of Pittsburgh.

Building on established partnerships

UCSUR was excited to partner with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, which offers many programs and services through its “Beyond Big Data” initiative. Our open data partners at the City of Pittsburgh were also able to use the event as an opportunity to conduct user tests of their Burgh’s Eye View tool prior to launch.

Established relationships within the Library and our local ecosystem helped us quickly recruit some of our presenters. We recruited station leaders from a variety of backgrounds, including librarians, students, teachers, public-sector employees, Code for America brigade members, artists, journalists, and technologists. Data Day marked the first time that many of these people were able to come together in the same place.

Key Takeaways

  • Meet people where they are. Choosing a public space like a library allowed us to connect with library visitors who didn’t know about Data Day until their visit. Some attendees found themselves intrigued by the tables and spent as much as an hour interacting with the different station leaders and their activities.
  • Provide for different levels of learning. It seemed as if our audience gravitated toward tables where the activities had no learning curve or required no explanation. We found that enabling library visitors to flip-through a 100-year old plat map book is a great way to spark a conversation about redlining. Designing a data postcard inspired by the “Dear Data” project, for example, encouraged people to tell a data story through a hand-drawn visualization.
  • Create opportunities to bring in expertise from various sectors. As we had hoped, the hands-on activities created an opportunity for conversation between station leaders and participants. Station leaders were able to take time to visit other tables and engage in the activities as participants. This was not something we anticipated, but it was interesting to see relationships begin to develop between our station leaders. For example, a local reporter with PublicSource was invited to present on data journalism at a hack night organized by students at Carnegie Mellon following Data Day.

In collecting feedback from station leaders, we learned that they liked seeing such a wide variety of activities, and welcomed the opportunity to share their work. What’s more, they were in favor of participating in another Data Day.

Looking ahead

Based on suggestions from leaders and attendees, we will expand into a larger space within the library, have all leaders participate at the same time, and include many more activities geared toward the interests of children.

It has been remarkable to see how the local information landscape has changed in Pittsburgh since our first annual data event in 2009. Public and nonprofit organizations have clearly made great strides in making more and more information available. Data Day provides us with an opportunity to not only celebrate, but also strengthen bonds among data users, and provide us with feedback about the needs and capacity of our community.

We’re happy to report that Pittsburgh’s second Data Day will take place on October 21, 2017 at the Carnegie Library, and visitors from the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition will be on-hand to join us for the event. Check out the Carnegie Library website for more information, or follow @carnegielibrary.

Liz Monk, Project Manager of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Community Profiles project, also contributed to this post. This post was adapted from a summary originally published in the December 2016 Pittsburgh Economic Quarterly.

Pittsburgh 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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