What is a Community Data Portal and What Difference Can it Make?

What is a Community Data Portal and What Difference Can it Make?

A few years ago, I described the need our community of Louisville, KY had for a “third place” for data. At that time, government at all levels were in a boom of the deployment of Open Data portals for a wide range of data–from crime to weather–and presented in a range of accessible forms for download or real-time API feeds. Open data from government is an important first step and the foundation of a solid understanding of the health and welfare of a community. However, what we saw coming in 2014 from the Internet of Things (IoT) and crowdsourced citizen science has proliferated. Data gathered within a community using these approaches has nearly universally meant data stored in either commercial or single purpose non-profit storage environments.

Many communities interested in air pollution, for example, have deployed devices which by default encourage their native mobile app dashboards or their dedicated cloud storage. Our early efforts in Louisville to augment our five EPA monitoring sites with low cost sensors also led to the creation of a data platform for the project and ultimately was not connected to sustainable funding and was taken down two years after launch.

A Second Chance

Two years ago, Louisville tried again, this time in collaboration with the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University. Pittsburgh’s strong environmental justice community inspired us to adopt their odor reporting app called SmellMyCity. In meetings with our environmental justice community we heard two things: 1) Where does the data from our reporting go? And 2) What role does the community play in its governance? It became clear through dialogue that the right answers were that it goes somewhere the community can see it and that the community needs to have a seat at the governing table.

The Superfund Research Program

The U.S. EPA and the National Institutes of Health know that the health of a place can only be considered with an engaged and involved community and it is central to each of their funded Centers. For Louisville’s second chance, we started with the funding and the mandate the University of Louisville had to translate research and bring all stakeholders together when considering the many factors that inform our shared understanding of a place. Many communities around the United States have universities that are part of the program, or have sites of interest to a regional Superfund Center. A group of community volunteers organized and took the challenge to create a data platform that could be used by anyone in the community with data gathered about our community and, importantly, be governed by nominated and self-nominated volunteers. To further bolster sustainability, the project was supported by the University of Louisville Center for Healthy Air Water and Soil which, like the Superfund Center, is part of the larger Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute, which has committed to long term support of the hosting costs.

Welcome The Louisville Data Commons

At the unveiling of this portal, called The Louisville Data Commons, the Mayor of Louisville, the Honorable Greg Fischer, and Grace Simrall, the City’s Chief of Civic Innovation and Technology, joined volunteer data commons community board members to invite every citizen scientist, curious science fair student and place-based nonprofit to consider sharing their data on this portal. The initial datasets on the portal include the SmellMyCity data, tree inventory data from citizen foresters, and the city’s “Clean and Green” audits of trash around Louisville. The source code is free to any community and the governing board has offered to help anyone set up a copy for their community. Great pains are being taken to find a wide range of data types–from birding clubs to student backyard science. Louisville believes that the more we know about our community, the more we can do to reduce inequity and advocate for the policies and programs that really improve lives.


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