Bridging the Data Divide One Resource at a Time


How’s this for a napkin equation? For every ten articles pronouncing data “the new oil,” we have one example of data science being used for the public good.

Among those expanding community organizations’ ability to do that work are, of course, well-known groups like DataKind and the Sunlight Foundation. One you might be less familiar with is the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP), a collaboration of the Urban Institute and local partners in 32 cities to further the development and use of neighborhood-level information systems for community building and local decision-making.

As part of this mission, NNIP partners engage deeply on equipping local nonprofits and governments to identify and tackle local priorities. Examples include data literacy trainings that developed new capacity to combine and interpret organizational and open government data at Data Driven Detroit. California health advocates gained new abilities to contextualize and localize data to improve numeracy, thanks to the Urban Strategies Council. Public librarians now have a clear guide to how they can help residents use their open data portal, thanks to Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. And organizations operating children’s health programs in King County, Washington, can now employ data to improve their grant proposals, thanks to Communities Count. Links to more information about the approach and impact of these four training examples are here.

What does any of this mean for you, dear Civicist reader? Plenty, because NNIP and partners developed a bevy of data training resources along the way. Please help yourself to:

  1. A step-by-step guide on how to get started offering community data trainings, written for a civic tech organization, library, university, nonprofit support group, tech volunteer effort, public agency, or local data intermediary like yours. It includes advice on how to assess local needs, prioritize skills gaps, develop training content, and fund this work.

  2. A catalog of data training materials and lessons for you to repurpose.

  3. A summary brief on the current training landscape and key steps to ensure that local government and nonprofit staff have the data and tech skills they need to accomplish their civic missions.

  4. A fact sheet summarizing a survey of current training efforts, to compare your program against or to learn about the topics, audiences, and gaps NNIP partners see in this space.

If you would like to contribute your own data training course materials to the catalog, please email the fine people at nnip@urban.org. The credit for this rich collection of work is due to NNIP and their partner organizations. (Disclosure: The author’s group and colleagues at Microsoft provided support for this study.)

In a competitive landscape, like, say, data science, many of the benefits technology provides are first-mover advantages. Once a technology is equally distributed, the competitive benefits it provides are sometimes diluted. This is why the field of civic tech is so interesting: we work to equip the public and nonprofit sectors with promising new technologies within a time frame that upsets the usual power dynamics of technology distribution. It surprises no one when an elite financial firm benefits from new tech like real-time data analysis before the rest of us. It’s more compelling, in this author’s opinion, when groups working on behalf of local communities gain new powers ahead of the usual curve. If the future’s already here, civic tech is the work of evenly distributing it. NNIP and everyone else training public servants to bridge the data divide are doing just that.