Thursday, March 4, 2010

New Tool Could Enable California's Journalists To Report Better Than Ever -- If They Use It

by Cassidy Friedman
SF Appeal
March 3, 2010 8:00 AM

Despite the many innovations of San Francisco 2010, a lot of public data is still hard to access, siloed within individual city departments and time-consuming to unearth. Some feel that as a result of this lack of transparency, politicians too often set policies without worrying the public might contest their assumptions about the community - like if hot spots of poor health have access to hospitals. Meanwhile, traditional and new media reporters are hobbled in their ability to inform citizens as thoroughly as they could, not simply because of the much-ballyhooed cutbacks in mainstream news orgs, but because California's data - that driver of policies and lifeblood of journalism - is hard as hell to get at.

"How we get privately held data and publicly held data is very painstaking," said Denise Gammal, vice president for strategy and organizational learning at Bay Area United Way. "There hasn't been a great source that's readily available and easy to use for a wider audience."

A new statewide community data-mapping Web site called Healthy City California, slated to launch Wednesday, hopes to change all that.

How to use Healthy City California from Cassidy Friedman on Vimeo.

HCC plans to deliver the motherlode of data sets, kind of like if Google insinuated itself into mainstream culture as the one-stop shop for Web searches. By plugging nearly 1,000 variables into a single user-friendly mapping system - more than any other community research site - San Franciscans will start to see the "big picture," HCC Director John Kim claims. How, for example, unemployment correlates with diabetes, poverty, mental illness, the location of liquor stores or educational attainment.

But, just as Google's success is measured by its millions of users, whether HCC excels will be determined by you - the Web-savvy computer user - and how much you supply and use the data.

Concerns also stew around HCC's size and the wide scope of its ambition. "Trying to be all things to all men" could send users back to their hometown mapping systems which, if not as comprehensive, still may be simpler to understand, said Steve Spiker, director of research and technology at Urban Strategies Council, a nonprofit in the East Bay.

So while Urban Strategies is partnering up with HCC, it will reserve some of its data for a local program tailored for only Alameda County, which Spiker expects will attract more local users.

Another free data site service called CityLab, which UC Berkeley's journalism school launched in August, is designed primarily for reporters in small news bureaus. "It's something that the news industry needs," said Susan Rasky, a senior lecturer at the journalism school who supervises CityLab.

While HCC has achieved considerable success with nonprofits in its home turf of Los Angeles County, how the platform will fare at mapping out the entire state remains unclear. The Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, another data-mapping organization, started in Los Angeles County with a more modest goal -- to promote equity in housing and banking across California. It went statewide, then collapsed after the Center's head faculty member retired and grants dried up - although it's not clear in what order, according to UCLA spokesperson Minne Ho.

But with HCC's aim to be all things for all community research, HCC appeals to the widest cross section of researchers. In the Bay Area nonprofits of all ilk are eagerly anticipating its arrival.

Christian Gonzalez-Rivera, research manager at Greenlining Institute, a multi-issue organization in the East Bay, said if HCC becomes popular, "it has the potential to be very big."

"All the different tools that policy people use, they are not very user-friendly," Gonzalez-Rivera said. "Interspersing these things on a map will very clearly show people these are the things that are affecting you."

If cramming so much data into a single program is unrealistic, we'll know soon enough. HCC will face its first test shortly after its launch when it attempts to undo the most entrenched under-reporting of community data in our nation's history: the census.

In an unprecedented effort, nonprofits across California will coordinate their outreach during the census by plotting their door-to-door wanderings on HCC's map. As weak spots - neighborhoods that fail to respond to the census - light up on the map, outreach workers will discover where their work is cut out for them. If it works, the system could save Californians millions of dollars in federal funding over the next decade.

How Healthy City California will coordinate San Francisco's census outreach from Cassidy Friedman on Vimeo.

How Healthy City California expects to coordinate San Francisco's census outreach

For the few journalists who know about HCC's existence (it's hardly been publicized), it's a call to dust off all those deep-diving projects that editors deflected to the bottom of their budgets and start digging again.

I only discovered HCC by stumbling into an unreleased version of the site. "You thought, 'I hit the jackpot, the treasure trove'?," Gammal guessed.

Within 10 minutes of visiting the site I'd nailed down my story, mapped out every trouble area for census outreach in San Francisco. It would have taken a week to do that on my own.

"As (journalists), like all of us (nonprofit researchers), go through belt-tightening and do more with less people and tighter resources, it's going to help with getting data, accuracy and the ease of use," Gammal, who regularly helps reporters find data, told me. "And a real key in journalism, is the value of how you can present data. This allows you to present visuals that are compelling rather than having to spend five hours yourself pulling it into a design program."

Behind the ambitious project is a public policy organization, the Advancement Project, which is backed by roughly $1.5 million from the California Endowment and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. That funding has helped the project to expand from a smaller scale project, which started in Los Angeles County in 2002.

Since then, Healthy City has contributed to an upheaval in public policy-making as people logging in from 40,000 different computers each year (according to the most recent count) have challenged political decisions and forced elected officials to concede millions of dollars to higher need districts, John Kim, HCC's director, said.

Healthy City California In Action from Cassidy Friedman on Vimeo.

Healthy City California In Action In LA

"What we want to do with Healthy City, overall is we want to help families find services," Kim said. "So we actually have compiled the largest database of nonprofits and community services for LA County. And when we launch the statewide system ... you'll actually see the largest research database in the state. "

When HCC goes live today, it's hoped that it will give community organizers, journalists and motivated citizens in California something they've never had: a vehicle on the Web that's as practical for spotting trends in California's communities as Google is for finding a hot cup of coffee.

And by making that information free, HCC may enable countless other cash-strapped journalists and community organizers to find the answers they've been looking for.

Sign up here to participate in a Healthy City Webinar today from 10-11:30 AM PT, future opportunities to learn how to use the site are here.


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