Data Into Action


Earlier this summer, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Future of News and Civic Media conference at MIT.  It was great to be around such a creative and talented group of people, and as usual, this year brought with it a new batch of Knight News Challenge winners. (For a roundup of some conference takeaways, see Paul’s post).

The topic for my talk was “Data into Action” — in other words, how can we build on transparency and use data to create social and political impact?

This was the question posed by Chris Csikszentmihalyi, the director of MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media, and the host of the conference.  It’s a particularly relevant question now, because the past few years have seen a real explosion in public open data, including countless websites and apps that make use of it.  Built into Chris’ question is the assertion that perhaps we don’t fully know how best to make use of all of this data that’s becoming available to us.

My guess is that we are going see a big increase in the number of tools that make public data actionable.  Below is my initial take on how (you can also see the video and the slides from the conference).  This is admittedly not fully formed: I don’t claim to know how to “turn data into action” — rather, I just have a few ideas about some of the factors and how they’re shaping the “data into action” landscape.

Making data actionable

Making data actionable requires focused effort; data on its own isn’t enough.  So where does that effort come from and how does it help?   Each of the following groups can play a part, and I hope to see more initiatives involving collaboration among them:

  • Government. Government can play a role, not only in producing data and making it available to the public, but also in accepting data in new ways.  Efforts like Open311 are attempting to create standards for read/write government APIs, and the idea of “government as a platform” is largely about considering and building out these data sets and APIs.  In most cases government alone cannot make data actionable, but they play a hugely important role in making it possible.  Side note: it’s worth mentioning that simply publishing a data set is not enough: in order to produce worthwhile action (and justify the expense of opening data), governments need to cultivate communities of users/developers around their data sets.
  • Civic Hackers. In recent years, civic data mashup sites have provided new views into how cities and governments operate.  GovTrack is one of the most mature: a congressional data site that combines many datasets in order to provide insights into what’s happening in congress, it makes that data actionable by providing ways for people to stay apprised of updates (called “trackers”), and provides an API which many other sites have used. On more of a personal utility level, a new application called CabSense takes historical NYC taxi pickup and dropoff data, and uses it to provide recommendations on where best to catch a taxi.  For every corner of life, civically conscious and entrepreneurial endeavors are popping up to make data more actionable (GovTrack in fact runs a modest profit from ad revenue).
  • Journalists. Journalists have always used research to provide consumer- or citizen-friendly insights.  In the age of mass data, the need for this hasn’t changed, though some of the methods have.  For instance: the Washington Post recently launched its “Daily Gripe” column, which uses incoming SeeClickFix issue reports as a basis for follow-up reporting.  The NY Times recently did an in-depth analysis of the same taxi data that powers CabSense.  As news organizations start using more real-time data, we can expect to see a big increase in interpretive data analysis.
  • Nonprofits & interest groups. Like journalists, nonprofits and interest groups are particularly motivated to produce action out of data. Uncivil Servants, a 2007 project by OpenPlans, Greg Whalin (a dot-com startupper by day and civic hacker by night) and NYC’s bike/ped advocacy group Transportation Alternatives is an example of this working to great effect.  The website  crowdsourced illegal use of city-issued parking placards, and TA followed up on those reports with the city as part of their “Above the Law” [PDF] campaign.  The result was a major restructuring of parking placard policy in NYC.

Each of these groups — and I’m sure there are others I’m missing — can add layers of meaning and actionability to raw data sets, and is a critical part of the “data into action” ecosystem.

Combining the lessons from “data sites” and “action sites”


Above: screenshot from the Haiti Crisis Map

For the most part, we’ve seen innovation along these two separate, parallel tracks: sites that mash data up in creative ways (for example:, EveryblockBigAppleEd, and many of the sites I mentioned above), and sites that imagine new ways for people to interact and collaborate with one another (examples: The Extraordinaries, The Point, PledgeBank, GroundCrew, and on).  I believe that we’ll begin to see a convergence of automated “data sites” and social “action sites.” A frequent thread of criticism about data sites is that they can feel cold and lifeless; I expect that will change as the convergence happens.

That these are largely separate is of course not a hard and fast rule: tools are emerging that combine the two: most notably Ushahidi, InSTEDD and others’ response to the Haiti Earthquake in January.  And here in the US, SeeClickFix‘s “watch areas” are a clever way to make citizen issue reports actionable.  I know there are more examples like these (please link to the best ones in the comments).

The challenges in how to “do data” and how to get people to collaborate are substantial, and it’s understandable that they’ve been tackled mostly independently.  But I think the timing is such that more and more folks will begin drawing the lessons that each class of sites has demonstrated, and start tying the approaches together.

Bridging the civic divide


My last hypothesis is that we can “piggy back” higher-level civic engagement on top of more personally-oriented tasks.

I see perhaps the biggest opportunity for converting data into action in attaching “civic actions” to services that people use for personal reasons.  For instance: “where’s the bus?” has been a huge topic over the past two years — transit has been one of the hottest sectors of open government data, precisely because it serves a very important personal need: how to get around.  Rather than viewing this as an insignificant development, I prefer to view it as an opportunity to draw people in to more civically significant activities.

Washington DC is taking an interesting approach to this: at last month’s Online Engagement for Sustainable Urban Mobility event, DC CTO Bryan Sivak announced that they will be building out a network of QR codes on the DC Circulator bus system (another example of government building the “platform”, or laying the foundation for innovation).  These codes will allow for the expected location-specific interactions between bus riders and the bus system. But it’s only a short step to imagine piggy-backing on those interactions to introduce questions like “which of these changes to the bus system would be most helpful to you?”.

A more subtle example is WalkScore. I recently moved from NYC to Boston, and I used WalkScore to help decide where to live.  This data (how walkable are certain locations?) is immediately actionable (where do I choose to live?).  What’s especially clever is that WalkScore uses this helpful-on-a-personal-level data to stealthily introduce the civic action that they’re advocating (reducing car dependence and encouraging alternative transportation).

Like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, people have a hierarchy of civic needs.  The basics need to be taken care of before “civic self actualization” is possible.  By building a foundation of engagements, beginning with the most personal and necessary, we can build a ladder to more significant civic actions.

What’s next

So, I think this is an interesting topic, and one that’s worth thinking about (and working on) in more detail.

I’ve been talking to Joe Edelman, CEO of Citizen Logistics (the makers of the awesome GroundCrew real-time organizing platform), and Chris Csikszentmihalyi from MIT about ideas for follow up.  The three of us would like to host an ongoing conversation on this topic, and invite others who are working in this space to join in.

To that end, we’re happy to announce the new Data into Action tumblog:

We’ll be posting there as we traverse the interwebs; please also feel free to submit your own posts, or if you prefer tag sites on delicious with “dataintoaction.”  We’ve also established a Data Into Action google group, for open discussion:

That’s it; we will see you out there….