Meet The D3 Staff: Erica Raleigh & Melissa Smiley

This Q&A is the first in a series of profiles of Data Driven Detroit staff members. 

As Data Driven Detroit continues to grow, Assistant Director of Projects, Erica Raleigh and Assistant Director of Operations, Melissa Smiley, continue to successfully guide our organization and provide support to D3’s Executive Director Kurt Metzger. Our transition to become an affiliate of the Michigan Nonprofit Association is almost complete, and we thought we should highlight our organization’s greatest asset, our staff. To kick off the new series, Erica and Melissa have provided an insight into their background, how they arrived at D3 and their experiences with the organization and Detroit.

Where did you grow up?

ER: I was born and raised in southeast Michigan, starting in Garden City, then spent most of my early years in Canton.

MS: I was born in Duluth, MN and grew up in various suburbs of Minneapolis.

Where did you go to school? 

ER: Early on, school for me was in the suburbs west of Detroit (Plymouth and Canton), and I graduated from Plymouth Salem High School.  After that, I worked on degrees in Ann Arbor and Detroit.

MS: My undergraduate degree is from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.  I spent my junior year abroad at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.  My Master’s Degrees and PhD are from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

What is your degree in? Why did you choose your degree?

ER: I have a bachelor’s in Hispanic Studies, and a Master of Urban Planning.  I didn’t so much choose them; life led me to them.

MS: As an undergrad, I majored in “Growth and Structure of Cities,” which is essentially an interdisciplinary urban studies program.   After working as a transportation planner for several years, I returned to graduate school to study public health and urban planning.  I’m interested in how urban environments impact health behaviors, especially around transportation.  My PhD is in Epidemiological Science, but my research involved the overlap between public health and urban planning.

Tell us something about yourself that would surprise us.

ER: It might not be too surprising for people who know me, but I am a horrible, awful cook.  I didn’t discover until my mid-twenties that I really love baking, a much more precise activity, and I’m kind of good at it!

MS: I love silent auctions at charity events and this sometimes gets me in trouble.

What is your history with Detroit?

ER: In some ways, I have the typical family legacy relationship with the city; my grandmother and grandfather both lived in the city and loved it, but left in one of many successive waves of white flight.  In contrast to many other suburban stories, however, my parents were not made afraid of the city and they loved to spend time here.  I was exposed early on to a lot of the cultural activities the city has to offer, like the Detroit Institute of Arts, Eastern Market, and the Thanksgiving Day Parade, the educational opportunities like Wayne State University (my mom is a proud alum and so am I), and even employment opportunities like the Detroit Medical Center where my mom worked for many years.

MS: I moved here in 2010 and own a loft in Midtown.  I like the city and plan to make it my long-term home.

What did you do before working at D3?

ER: It seems like a lifetime ago, but I wasn’t always a professional data geek.  I was a lab tech at a hospital, a caregiver at a day care, and for a long time, I waited tables and tended bars all over southeast Michigan.  When I started my master’s degree, I had the opportunity to work as a research assistant at Wayne State, with the Center for Urban studies as well as the Office of Business and Auxiliary Operations, and as a research assistant at Development Research Associates.

MS: Most recently, I was a graduate student and then I worked on several short-term consulting projects. Prior to graduate school, I worked as a transportation planner, a researcher at a large law firm, a barista, and a CityYear Chicago corps member.

What do you like about working at D3? How do you think the work you are doing benefits the city/region?

ER: I love that my day is never a repeat of the day before.  There is always a new project or some new data to work with.  I also love the team that makes D3 what it is.  We have an amazing staff, each with their own particular assortment of skills and perspectives on problem solving, and we do a lot of great work at D3 because of their dedication.

At the end of the day, I want to ensure that decision-makers have all the information they need to make good decisions.  Data-driven decision-making promotes efficacy – we need to find out what works and then do that.  I believe D3 contributes significantly to positive change in the region by making good information available to anyone who needs it.

MS: I like that nearly four years into its existence, D3 is still growing and changing.  I’ve enjoyed participating in our transition to the Michigan Nonprofit Association and I look forward to continuing to strategize about how best to serve the data needs of the city and region.

What is your favorite D3 map or data visualization? 

ER: The Neighborhood Parcel Tool


MS: I can’t narrow it down to just one. I think the idea of mapping movement of people, illustrated by the Student Dispersion tool, is also very cool and should be used for other projects.  Finally, I think some of our most exciting work to date went into the Neighborhood Parcel Tool and I’m hopeful that we’ll eventually improve and extend it to the entire city.

What is your favorite type of data?

ER: The kind with numbers!

MS: I’m most interested in data that help describe the physical environment in cities.  I think the strongest datasets incorporate perceptions of residents and objective measures from surveyors and government sources to start to tell a more complete picture of life in that area.

Who or what inspired you to take the path to Detroit, data or both?  

ER: Understanding the world around me has always been a driving force in my life.  I seek meaning in patterns; patterns in behavior, patterns in the built environment, patterns in history…  And when I see outcomes that are less than ideal, I am driven to explore the repetitive activities producing these outcomes so that I might help to alter the cycle.  I believe that data can help reveal these patterns, help us identify reasonable intervention points, and then help interpret the success of interventions.  I have been extremely lucky to be a person with natural quantitative inclinations, and to have the opportunity to work in Detroit at a time when so many people are seeking this kind of information.

MS: When I completed my graduate degree, my wife and I wanted to stay in the Detroit area.  We both used to live in Chicago and other cities and really missed living in an urban environment.  We considered options throughout the region and happily settled in Midtown.  It remains one of the best decisions we’ve ever made!