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Curating Data to Spark Community Engagement in Los Angeles

NDSC Screenshot
USC Price Center

Published in partnership with the USC Price Center for Social Innovation in support of the Neighborhood Data for Social Change platform (NDSC): The platform is a free, publicly available online data resource that provides reliable, aggregated data at the city, neighborhood, and census tract level. The mission of the USC Price Center for Social Innovation is to develop ideas and illuminate strategies to improve the quality of life for people in low-income urban communities.

Big data has been touted as the solution to all ills. Yet, when community organizers and leaders search for data to solve a specific problem, they’re often met with scattered, unfiltered results that are difficult to comb through.

USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation is tackling this issue head on by launching Neighborhood Data for Social Change, a free and publicly available online platform that combines raw data with ongoing stories and visualization tools like digital mapping. Every component serves to increase data literacy — equipping people with the information needed to make tangible improvements to communities within Los Angeles County.

“Neighborhood data platforms have been passive. There’s useful data out there but it’s not helpful in getting real people to tell their own stories,” said Gary Painter, director of the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation. “We want to build this bridge.”

Downtown Los Angeles

The platform houses data from 10 policy domains, which include: education, employment and income, environment, demography, food insecurity, health, housing and real estate, public safety, social connectedness and transportation.

Users have the option to access data on three geographic levels: cities (88), neighborhoods (272) and census tracts (2,344). Depending on individual need, users can then track trends and shifts within each policy area. There is an option to jump to the original data source as well.

“We wanted the project to have breadth and depth, but not to overwhelm people,” Painter said.

Caroline Bhalla, managing director of the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation, echoed this sentiment, adding that curating data from sources like the American Community Survey, Los Angeles Police Department and California Department of Education makes information more accessible to community members. As a result, the project serves as a tool for community engagement.

“Nonprofits are going to benefit, as well as neighborhood folks, local government folks, and even teachers and students,” Bhalla said.

Tara Watford, director of research and evaluation of Youth Policy Institute, shared her enthusiasm for the platform: “For us, what’s great about this tool is that we can draw our own borders and perform a needs assessment for a specific neighborhood or even a cluster of census tracts.”

Currently, the staff uses the American Community Survey to search for relevant data — a task that Watford describes as tedious and frustrating. The Neighborhood Data for Social Change platform streamlines the process, enabling users to create custom target areas and track shifts in education, poverty, housing stability and more.

In discussing this resource with community leaders in other counties, Painter realized the project has potential for an even wider application.

“A pastor in Orange County asked me whether there was going to be a resource like this for the O.C. He wanted to know more about his community so he can better serve it,” Painter said.

According to Bhalla, there are currently 33 cities that boast a neighborhood data platform, but what separates this one for Los Angeles County is its ongoing series of data stories, categorized under the 10 policy areas. These narrative-based stories, accompanied by pictures, interactive charts and maps, aim to inspire community organizers and leaders to further invest in their neighborhoods.

Downtown Los Angeles Demographic Shifts

A story under the “demography” section compares the changing racial makeup of Lakewood to that of Downtown Los Angeles. The data shows a steadily growing Hispanic population in Lakewood (up 5% from 2009 to 2015), while an interactive chart shows Downtown Los Angeles is experiencing a sharp increase in the percentage of white residents (increasing 36% from 2010 to 2015). This information offers valuable insight for local business owners, school officials and investors. These community leaders might be inspired to create multilingual restaurant menus, offer more foreign language classes and better allocate local resources.

“We’re using data to paint a picture about specific neighborhoods,” Bhalla said. “We hope our community partners will be inspired by the stories and say ‘Here’s our data, let’s see what you have’ … that’s the only way this project will grow beyond USC and become a living and breathing resource.“

The idea for the Neighborhood Data for Social Change platform originated over five years ago, when nonprofits, incubators and research institutions convened to discuss the need for a data platform that is curated through a neighborhood lens.

Although the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation understood the enormous task ahead, the team agreed to spearhead the project in 2015 after realizing this platform was necessary to accomplish its goals — to find innovative and sustainable solutions to issues in low-income, urban communities.

The Center has partnered with Socrata, a software company, to build out the nuts and bolts of the platform. It will be launched on Monday, October 30.

“We’re not going to have the right model for community engagement right away, but we want to listen and work with the community to build out this resource,” Painter said. “It’s an ongoing, collaborative process.”

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