D3 Goes West: the Portland NNIP Conference

Danny Devries and Kat Hartman in Portland

It can be tough out there for a data analyst; most people don’t quite understand what we do, so I just say “I make maps.” When they respond “Haven’t you heard of Google Maps?,” I can only stare forlornly. Luckily, D3 is not alone in this world. NNIP is a community that hates American FactFinder 2 but loves to visualize margins of error. These data folk are a special breed.

Last week, D3 analyst Kat Hartman and I left our homes in cold-yet-sunny Detroit to spend a few days in cold-and-rainy Portland, Oregon to attend the semiannual NNIP conference. The National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) is a collaborative effort by the Urban Institute and local partners in cities across the nation to further the development and use of neighborhood information systems in local policymaking and community building. The conference was a great opportunity to interact, share, and learn from our comrades-in-arms from other cities, from New York City to Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Besides the chance to socialize with like-minded nerds, the Portland conference provided great learning opportunities that require reaching out beyond Detroit. D3 is one of the larger NNIP partners and our work covers a lot of territory (literally and figuratively), but some partners are leaps and bounds ahead of D3 in areas such as promoting citizenship journalism. Piton Foundation in Denver is developing a Citizen Atlas to empower communities to tell their own stories using data. Boston’s Metro Area Planning Council is using Weave, a new platform developed by University of Massachusetts Lowell in collaboration with several NNIP partners, to allow individuals to build and post their own maps that others can continue to build. Seeing the groundbreaking work in other cities is a reminder that there is always more we can do here in Detroit.

The other great benefit of the NNIP meetings is stepping back from the day-to-day work to reexamine the bigger picture of our work. Some NNIP stakeholders suggested that data are most effective when supporting a community’s aspirations, rather than using data to drive the aspirations. If a community has made the commitment to address a challenge, placing the right data in their hands can be quite powerful. But if that same community hasn’t mobilized around an issue and doesn’t yet have a vision for the change they would like to see, data alone cannot be the catalyst for change. As I sit at my desk and stare at databases all day long (and make those aforementioned maps), it is easy to forget why I’m here and what drew me to the field in the first place. Devoting time to discuss the underlying philosophy of data with a community of practitioners over a cold Portland microbrew is a refreshing reminder of the power of data.

This was my second NNIP conference. The last meeting was in Detroit last May, and the next meeting will be in Providence, Rhode Island this September.