Heads up, mission-based organizations in Massachusetts! Powerful data visualization tools (and the skills to use them) are within your reach.
Thanks to the MetroBoston DataCommon, all you need to get started is to sign up for one of their trainings. The DataCommon is a joint project of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Boston Indicators Project; if you’ve been admiring not only the insights but the great graphics that you find on the latter’s web site, then you’ll have no trouble seeing the value of the free training.
An enormous added value of taking the MetroBoston DataCommon training is that they walk you through the process of creating a free Weave account. This means that the version of Weave that you will be using is already loaded with crucial data sets from sources such as the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. You will be able to analyze, understand, and communicate your organization’s mission and impact, while using hard data about regional conditions to provide a context.
Of course, this opportunity is going to be less helpful to those who are not within an easy traveling distance of the MetroBoston DataCommon headquarters at MAPC. What I would like to see is regional planning agencies and nonprofit associations in other states offer similar resources and trainings.
First of all, a personal resolution: I will not whine.
The Boston Indicators Project, which is an initiative by the Boston Foundation and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, relaunched its web site in November, and I was not invited to the event. I will subdue my inclination to pout, and move on to praising the new web site.
Fortunately, a fellow Boston Technobabe, Kat Friedrich, did attend; you therefore have the option of skipping my blog article and going straight to hers. Kat’s focus is on “How Nonprofits Can Earn News Coverage Using Data Visualization,” which is certainly a great take-away for mission-based organizations.
My interest is slightly different. Here are a few things that are especially striking:
- Measuring what we value. This principle is prominently displayed on the relaunched web site, and is one that I learned in 2002 from the Boston Indicators Project’s co-founder and director, Charlotte Kahn. (I worked on the 2003 indicators report, which was the very first to be webified.) The version I heard from her own lips is “we should measure what we value, rather than only valuing what we can measure.” It’s not enough to throw together a lot of data about our region, simply because it’s available. We have to think about what it means, why it’s important, and it helps us understand the most effective strategies for positive change.
- Democratizing the data. This is a principle that I learned both from Charlotte and from Barry Bluestone; the latter is a professor at Northeastern University and has been enormously influential in the evolving Boston Indicators Project. Democratizing the data means more than making canned reports available; it entails a constant effort to increase the interactivity of the web site, so that anyone concerned about the future of our region can slice and dice crucial data, and thereby go beyond the Boston Indicators Report to conclusions and initiatives of his or her own. For that, we must thank not only Charlotte and Barry, but two of my other great favorites: Tim Gassert, the Boston Foundation’s director of web communications, and Georges Grinstein, a professor of computer science at University of Massachusetts at Lowell and one of the trailblazers in the creation of the Weave data visualization tool.
The new Boston Indicators web site is great example of nonprofit technology in the service of a mission that is much greater any one community foundation or specific region. I happen to live in the greater Boston area, so I’ve been more easily drawn to it than I would be if I were living elsewhere. But it’s an example to any individual or organization, of the power of the universal access to the significant data, and the importance of analyzing it in ways that benefit the community.