A Detroit Data History Lesson with Kurt Metzger

As we enter into 2013, Data Driven Detroit’s new affiliation with the Michigan Nonprofit Association has inspired me to take a step back and reflect on my history and how Data Driven Detroit was born. The history of the organization and my own are inexorably intertwined! In 1975, I accepted a fulltime job offer with the Census Bureau in Detroit. Prior to this move, I had attended graduate school in Cincinnati, where I supplemented my income as a psychology teaching and research assistant, with part time work for the Census Bureau – conducting surveys in the area of crime, housing and agriculture.  Somewhere in the middle of conducting research for my dissertation, I realized that teaching and publishing was not the way I wanted to spend the rest of my life.

During my first 5 years at the Census, I served as a Geographic Specialist, working with local planning agencies in Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia to update their maps for the 1980 Census. After the Census, I moved to the Information Services Program, becoming an Information Services Specialist.  Here I found that my love of numbers and my newly discovered ability to present those numbers in a meaningful way could be my calling.  We didn’t have laptops, CDs or DVDs, or the internet in those days.  We got excited when new Data arrived on Microfiche!

One of my jobs was to present workshops on finding and using census data.  While I could always depend on librarians to be receptive, it was at an Urban League gathering in Columbus, Ohio where it all came together for me.  The enthusiasm generated by participants as they found data in those books about their community and decided how to tell their own story (not waiting for the national office to tell that story) was contagious. I knew that I had found my calling!

I left the Census Bureau in 1990 and headed to Wayne State to join a program called MIMIC – the Michigan Metropolitan Information Center. Wayne State unsuccessfully tried to get me to finish that Ph.D., but I became MIMIC’s director after 3 years instead.  MIMIC was part of a program initiated by the Census Bureau – the State Data Center Program – that developed statewide networks of organizations dedicated to making census data available.  WSU received the mainframe computer tapes and we were able to provide data to the public that previously was only available through private research companies.  MIMIC‘s goal was to be the center of a coordinated data system for metro Detroit.  The politics of Detroit never allowed that but we pushed forward with the new technologies that were coming to the forefront over the 15 years I was there – from CDs to DVDs, GIS and the internet.

It was while at MIMIC that other data collaboration efforts began in Detroit and MIMIC was always willing to participate.  There was the Southeast Michigan Information Center at United Way and the Detroit Data Partnership (DDP) at City Connect Detroit.  Neither built the internal capacity – knowledgeable staff and infrastructure – to make it work, but added to the critical mass of interest in building a Detroit data center.

I moved to United Way in 2005 and spent 3 years as Research Director.  In 2008, the philanthropic community of Detroit became heavily engaged in the city and recognized the need for data to help direct investment and to measure outcomes.  The DDP project was floundering and, after a period of researching programs that worked, City Connect was asked to develop a concept paper for what was then called the Detroit-Area Community Information System (D-ACIS) and I was contacted and invited to become its director and creator.  This was an opportunity of a lifetime for me.  I came to City Connect in November of 2008 and made my first hires at the beginning of 2009.

My mantra all along was that we would be an independent, objective clearinghouse that would provide information to the community at large.  There would be no formal affiliations so that there could be no turf issues.  We would work with those organizations that believed in the vision we had around collaboration and sharing.

In 2010, D-ACIS became Data Driven Detroit.  The original design of a 4 person staff has expanded greatly over the years and I continue to have the time of my life.  While we haven’t bridged the full network of potential partners – a network that supports a common data vision and agenda for Detroit and the region – the partnerships continue to grow.

Join us in 2013.  It is going to be a great year for Detroit!