Don’t Silo Your Geeks

First posted on the Harvard Data Smart Cities here

I’ve just told another partner organization “Don’t silo your geeks!”  It’s about the tenth time this year that I’ve conveyed this message.

The way most organizations utilize research, mapping and data is the same whether the analysis comes from an internal group or a contracted partner. You ask the data folks to do some analysis, with a well formed plan to give them, then get the results and go do the thinking work to implement a new plan or improve an existing effort. So what’s wrong with this model? Everything. This model not only serves to perpetuate a gross misunderstanding, it also serves to devalue your own staff and to rob your organization of valuable insights.

When you take your broken car to a mechanic for repairs you tell them the symptoms and then leave them to do their thing. All good.  Unfortunately with data analysis you’re not just following a formula model like: issue+data+geek=result.  By handing over a specification or formed plan for analysts to follow, you’re missing the fact that the analysts know an enormous amount about what is possible, best practices for indicators, methods and communication styles, and about how to frame a research project to ensure your goals are met. Data geeks actually happen to know a lot about your work, your issues, and how to effectively think through a problem.  We’ve long treated data folks as simple number crunchers who know magic tricks that we leave alone to do their thing. That’s a serious misunderstanding.

Involve your data partners in your thinking, strategy, and planning and you ensure a higher chance of success for your project.

This approach sends a message to your data team or consultant that you really only consider them useful for doing the geekery, that they cannot possibly understand your problem or the end application of the data.  When organizations maintain the stigma of data analysts being simply geeks who like tech, you ensure those very talented individuals will never truly reach their potential in your organization.  Given the average analyst possesses traits including problem solving abilities, critical thinking skills and rare creativity, do you really think we’re using them best by siloing them away and perpetuating the geek stereotype?

More importantly, you ensure that your analysis is never as good as it should be by isolating the data folks from your initial thinking process, from your planning and brainstorming phase and your research formation efforts.

Would you take your car to the mechanic with a detailed procedure to follow? Not likely, you’d consult with them and develop a plan that includes their detailed knowledge and your broader mission (namely keeping your car reliable). Then they execute, you receive the results.  By engaging with your data folks in the early phases of a project you add valuable perceptions and insights, you allow for perspectives on what can be done, what would be problematic and how best to frame the plan.  You gain from having the folks who will execute your plan helping to form it, ensuring that your ask is reasonable and that your ideas can be executed upon.  A weak plan is nearly impossible for some research group to turn into a useful end product.  Involve your data partners in your thinking, strategy, and planning and you ensure a higher chance of success for your project.

Likewise, when you get your research report, data outputs, maps or other results, don’t consider the role of your data geeks to be over.  I’ve witnessed so many planning and implementation meetings where the folks in charge butcher the data analysis or misinterpret the maps, leading the effort down a bad path with less chance of the desired impacts.  Take the data geeks out of this stage and your chances of making similar mistakes are seriously amplified.  Keep your data partner engaged in this crucial last stage. Allow them to help form the end result, expect that you will raise up further data questions that will require more work to go back and answer.

A final benefit in keeping your data team involved at all stages is that you’re building the capacity and skills of your data folks, giving them insights to better guide their phase of the work, strengthening your team, and allowing for more diverse, experienced voices in your efforts. That’s rarely a bad thing.

Data Collection Community Style

I had the chance to see a preview today of the Detroit team’s app called LocalData today- part of the Code for America program.  Once again it’s very exciting to see what a team of outside designers, technologists, planners and data geeks can do in the right environment and with the right pretext. For me this is a liberating and exciting trend. Having come up with ways to do the exact same thing in my work I’m painfully aware of how clunky and onerous it is to set up the tools to conduct and manage and publish survey data- our city has been surveyed to death and the results are typically in the filing cabinets of nonprofits and government departments. useless.

Take a quick look at the video showing what LocalData is and does and read on..

LocalData Demo by Code for America from CfA Detroit on Vimeo.

These kinds of newly developed tools would have made a huge difference in the development and implementation of our last major community survey project with a team of high schoolers from Youth UpRising in East Oakland (full article here).

Typically if a community group, organizing group or public agency want’s to collect data they need to call some experts. And we don’t come cheap typically. When we started this project the ask was to help their youth survey their community, so we helped them to identify the focus- park conditions and safety, property conditions and healthy food availability.

Paper sucks, in most instances. We ended up choosing to purchase some discounted Trimble Juno GPS units and got donated ArcPad software from ESRi along with ArcGIS Mobile that came with our server licenses. At the time (mid 2010) the new Mobile software was terrible, super unstable on any setup we tried, bugs the development team couldn’t solve, so out went the more elegant interface and in went an ArcPad project. Trouble is no-one else on our team had had the joy of working with this product before, so fun for me… The devices were loaded with all the parcel data for their community and a bunch of survey screens to gather condition data- we copied a property survey done in another major city to have some form of data standard in the end. Let me just add that even for a seasoned GISP the learning curve and setup time for this app is not small or pretty.

The units froze in the field, crashed, lost data and all kinds of fun that frustrated the students and added time and cost to managing the project. I don’t think we had more than three students actually like using the device/app. But we got out data for the parks and for every property in the tract. 1,000 parcels surveyed. Every park in East Oakland surveyed (there we used a survey template from a HEAL group in Richmond to again try to get some comparable data in our region). But all the data had to be managed, processed and mapped by our team of researchers.

The finished poster of the project is below. The photos we had to take later with a real camera as the Juno devices would only provide ArcPad with a 160×120 image, awesome, that’s like 0.01 megapixels?? Another reason why a smartphone solution just kills it. Once we finished a friend of ours who is a java guru suggested next time we get a Java app built for a smartphone, faster and cheaper. This is where the Code for America approach is powerful. Most small nonprofits don’t have a budget for app developers and we have a hard time convincing managers to fund app/automation development up front to produce a reusable product that saves serious time later and can be reused elsewhere freely.  So we’re looking forward to implementing this new tool in Oakland and the east bay, especially on a full open stack with PostGIS! But we’ll still need funding to help make this happen 😉

Housing conditions

Oh, and as we believe strongly in open data this project’s data IS available in shapefile, excel or csv.

To see more about this great CfA project, to copy their code and more, hit up:

How to (not) support new business in Oakland

There’s a lot of excitement in Oaktown lately, lots of amazing national press coverage about how amazing our town is, how great and diverse the food and culture is, the art and music scene and the bustling new venues to enjoy. People in city hall and various chambers are talking about new business opportunities here and are optimistic about the chances for a real retail and commerce boost to this wonderful but struggling city. I’ve been chatting with people about the ways to enable and encourage new business start-ups, in both the tech and regular retail/commerce world, lots of folks are positive about spaces being leased and used from Jack London to Uptown. Then I ran across a hackathon (that is sadly fully booked, say what?) with a focus on building opportunities for commonly disenfranchised and discouraged communities to help establish new businesses in their communities, very cool TED. And I started thinking about how a new entrepreneur goes about finding the space for their new business in San Francisco, and conversely how they would do the same in Oakland. Profound differences.

In SF you quickly stumble upon the official SF Prospector, an online tool that is old and clunky from a UI point of view but never the less allowed me to pick some square footage requirements, select an area of interest, a leasing rate and some other sensible variables and then to automate the process of finding possibly suitable sites. For my theoretical new photography studio I found a good location, that happened (by pure luck I’m sure) to be on a block with several other photographic studios close by, so fortunate locality with related traffic in the area, awesome.

But if I wanted my new site to be in sunny Oakland, to establish my new business in this side of the bay? Good luck. Leg work, connections, various real estate and small business sites with no real info and no leads. Nada from the city or the county. So we have a new dream team of the city administrator Deanna Santana, well reputed deputies in Scott Johnson and Fred Blackwell and zero ability for new business owners or expanding ones to find possible new locations quickly and online and at no cost. I was really stunned, nothing official, nothing to make the path smooth to help business locate in our town. WTF.

We recently soft launched as a web mapping and data viz tool to allow people to combine public data from multiple city and county agencies, all in one place, to promote data driven decision making and real, informed planning decisions. We aimed at our main partners in the CBO community, organizers and policy makers needing better access to data. But it may be that we need to load in all our countywide property data, connect up the foreclosure filings (which are privately held and sold by the way, or scraped…) and wait till the city releases all the current business permit data and vacancy info so we can just build this ourselves. The technology is no longer a real barrier, building interactive, responsive, usable tools to support our community should be a no-brainer for our governments, but it seems very slow in coming in the east bay. Technology is an enabler, but only if you choose to use it that way.

PS If you do know of a web based tool that does help businesses plan and launch in Oakland PLEASE let me know, I’d be happy to eat my words and let people know that it is actually possible!