Journalists are enjoying a deepening relationship with data sets. But before the numbers are delivered out of the news side of the pipe, they have to come in through the opposite end. And even as technology advances, collecting raw information can be a very analog-style process.
LocalData, winner in the data round of the Knight News Challenge, is working to simplify the data collection process through a specialized toolkit that will make it easy for civil servants or civilians to gather information about where they live and work.
LocalData is a combination of several things. It provides for the collection, organization, and visualization of information in one continuous system. It’s designed to be used beginning at the street level: City workers or community members can either use an app to register information directly or scan paper documentation into the system. From there the information can be exported into different formats for display or analysis.
With the $300,000 awarded from Knight, LocalData founders Alicia Rouault, Prashant Singh, and Matt Hampel will refine the interface and launch the service in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston. “We feel the impact this tool can have in other cities will be really robust,” Rouault told me.
What types of things will LocalData enable? Nonprofit organizations, community groups, or others can create custom surveys, which could be used for gathering demographic information about a residents in a particular neighborhood. Or it could be used to assess property within specific regions of city.
That’s what happened in Detroit, where LocalData operated as a pilot project. Rouault, Singh, and Hampel are Code for America fellows, and were sent to Detroit earlier this year to figure out what type of tools or project would best benefit the city. Working with the city, they beta tested what would become LocalData in a survey designed to assess urban blight. Rouault said they worked with community development groups and neighborhood associations to understand the information needs, but also the tools that would be most useful.
For the most part data collection is clipboard-based work, with pen and paper being the system of choice, she said. The digital tools available now are more oriented to the professionals, which creates a barrier for wider use, Rouault said.
“All the existing tools in this space are expert tools, so we wanted to make something that was geared towards democratizing and leveling the playing field when it comes to data collection,” she said.
That idea of democratizing tech, using it as a bridge between the community and the government, is likely one of the reasons LocalData appealed to Knight. Rouault said the project has uses for city hall, but also for citizen groups. It can be used to collect data that can help attract federal aid, or for advocacy dollars. The common goal, she said, is improving the broader community.
The reason the project is expanding across the county is because the organizers see similarities to Detroit in places like Boston, New York, and Chicago. They’re cities that have a mix of civic engagement and technology adoption. But Rouault said going all digital would be a mistake for LocalData because some people, either because of preference or lack of access, take the pen and paper route for information gathering. “The bread and butter of how these groups actually collect data is their volunteer capacity,” she said.
Rouault said they’re less changing the feature set in LocalData than refining it. One thing they want to improve is the ability to tie information to a location. Instead of just inputing data by a parcel of land, Rouault said users need to be able to pinpoint information in relation to other objects within an area. As they expand their effort, Rouault said they’ll continue to improve the app based on how people use it. “The kinds of things we’re gonna build out in the future will really meet the needs of the user, so as we build out to new cities we’re going to get more feedback from users,” she said.