Turning on the Lightbulb – A Second-Timer’s First Impressions of NNIP

by Noah Urban

Two weeks ago, I attended my second meeting of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) in Dallas. This wasn’t my first NNIP meeting – I attended last October’s meeting in Denver as a wide-eyed, slightly awkward analyst who’d been on the (full-time) job for just a few months. Needless to say, I found the entire experience to be, 1) extremely impressive and 2) quite a bit to take in. I left the Mile-High City with my mind awhirl with possibilities, ideas, and the simple realization that, “Hey! There are other people who do what I do in other cities!”

However, had I written this ‘first impressions’ blog post at that point, it likely would have involved plenty of gushing about essential topics including but not limited to:

“It sure is cool to be able to talk with other people from other cities about the work that I’m doing. And it’s even cooler that they’re interested in what I have to say!”

“People from other cities have incredible solutions to providing better data to the public!”

“Wow, Denver’s light rail system sure is fantastic!”

“For a city so famous for its mountains, it’s actually pretty flat!

These may have been valuable takeaways (some more so than others), but they were pretty much surface-level. I’d just been introduced to the network, and I didn’t fully understand just how much more the meetings offered until a couple of weeks ago.

To my great delight, by the Dallas meeting I’d processed most of the initial flood of information, and found that I was much better able to participate in the meetings this time. From the moment I sat down, it was immediately apparent to me why everyone had made the trek to Texas in the middle of October (admittedly a very nice, if slightly rainy, time to visit the area). It wasn’t just the chance for a change of scenery like so many conferences; this meeting allows the people who do some of the most important (and most unheralded) work in the country to come together and share ideas, experiences, and decades of accumulated wisdom. This time, I felt like I was able to experience the full value of the network. Here are the strongest first impressions that I gleaned from my second NNIP experience.

Bridging the Country’s Data Islands

At my first NNIP meeting in Denver, someone made a tongue-in-cheek comment about how the conferences tended to be “half church session, half support group.” While they may have been joking, this year I saw that there was truth to both parts of that comment. These meetings are unique among the conferences that I’ve attended: they’re relatively small, with no more than a hundred or so attendees, which facilitates the sorts of interactions that are impossible to get at larger conferences.

More than that, I think it’s impossible to overvalue the ‘support group’ element of the conference. To put it simply, work in our niche is often difficult and tedious, and we tend to face tremendous obstacles in situations that logically shouldn’t be that challenging. Given that, it’s incredibly refreshing to step off the plane and into a forum where you can strategize (and sometimes commiserate) with people from across the country that spend their days facing similar challenges and working through similar issues. I spent time with partners from Cleveland empathizing over fragmented regional governments, shared gentrification and affordability vignettes with Portland, and terrified our Dallas partner by telling them how much their city felt like Detroit (more on that later).

Ultimately, I think this openness is one of the greatest values of NNIP. The conference provides a forum where all of us can honestly discuss ideas, projects, strategies, and stories. When we’re crammed together in a single room for a couple of days, we’re able to see how people in other cities address the same challenges and opportunities. For both NNIP conferences I’ve attended, I’ve been awestruck at the breadth and depth of partner knowledge. It’s fantastic to experience the care, detail, and different perspectives that they all take in implementing their work.

Unconferencing to Conference Better

This was also a significant takeaway from the meeting in Denver, but I’m including it here anyway, because the Dallas meeting only served to reinforce it. Half of the NNIP sessions are run using the ‘unconference’ model – essentially a user-driven conference where participants decide topics and lead sessions. For a relatively small and close-knit group like NNIP, the model works well and leads to some great sessions. My favorite memory from Denver is sitting in an overly opulent coatroom with a couple of people from Chicago and Kathy Pettit, the NNIP director, brainstorming different ways to FOIA data more effectively from often-recalcitrant governments. There may have only been four participants, including myself, but it was probably the most practical conference session I’d ever attended to that point. I left that hour armed with several new techniques that I’ve since been able to implement.

An Organizational (and Disciplinary) Melting Pot

Another tremendous value that I took away from NNIP this year was a new appreciation for the range of organizational structures that each partner operates under, and the resulting strategies they use when navigating their local environments. Having representatives from universities, nonprofits, think-tanks, city governments, foundations (and now one L3C) around a single table is rare enough. Having them share their different viewpoints in conversations around Open Data, measuring gentrification and displacement, and even general organizational structures and their pros and cons is incredibly valuable. One of my favorite sessions this year involved seven or eight people – myself and Erica from D3, a couple of university-based partners, a foundation representative, and a couple of NNIP staff – sitting around a table, discussing the pros and cons of different organizational structures ranging from larger academic institutions to small, agile independent organizations. It was a surprisingly open and honest dialogue, reflecting back to the idea that the openness of the network is one of its greatest strengths. While I didn’t take any specific techniques away from this particular conversation, it was eye-opening to see how the different structures and disciplines of partners impact everything they do, from the type of research they take on to the approaches they take to maintaining and growing their businesses.

Three Additional Top Takeaways from Dallas

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the more specific things that I really enjoyed (and learned) from the specific Dallas meeting. Here are a few, in no particular order:

Streetcars can generate transit-oriented development – even if they don’t really go anywhere. During the conference, we took a neighborhood tour to look at transit-oriented development along a planned streetcar line in the North Oak Cliff/Bishop Arts neighborhood of South Dallas. The streetcar was small, short, and still under construction – residents even referred to it as going ‘from nowhere to nowhere.’ However, the scope of the developments along the streetcar line – both those that had been completed and those in the pipeline – was an impressive demonstration of using smaller transit options to catalyze economic development in what had previously been a relatively underinvested area.

Dallas and Detroit are incredibly similar, even though the narratives around them couldn’t be more different. Stepping out of the airport at Dallas, you enter a concrete maze of roads that your shuttle navigates to take you downtown. The light rail system (DART) is fairly well-developed, but from the plethora of freeways to the prevalence of surface parking lots in the downtown area, it’s clear that Dallas is a car city. Not only that, but it has a startling divide between the affluent northern portions of the city and the poverty- and blight-stricken southern portions, with a poverty rate one would generally associate more closely with older industrial cities (24.5% as of 2014; Philadelphia’s poverty rate was roughly 26%). Of course, it wasn’t only the challenges that made “The Big D” feel like “The D” – everyone was incredibly friendly, the food was excellent (particularly the burgers and brisket), and there was a passionate us-against-the-world mentality stemming from Dallas’s self-defined identity as a “city that shouldn’t exist”.

Releasing data almost always has benefits – even if people don’t think it will at first. One of my favorite panels during the conference centered on strategies and rationale for opening up policing data to the public. One presenter discussed the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project, which leveraged traffic stop data and analyzed it to identify areas where racial profiling policies were occurring. The project met with some resistance at first; government officials claimed that releasing the data would pressure officers to make fewer traffic stops, making the roads more dangerous. However, since the project started and the data were released, the number of traffic stops in Connecticut has actually increased, and the number of profiling-related complaints has decreased substantially.

These are only a few of the largest takeaways, and as the days and weeks go on, I’m sure I’ll think of plenty more that are equally (and in many cases even more ) valuable. Rather than trying to sum up the entire experience a neat sentence (the thoughts are still whirling around in my mind two weeks later, after all!) I’ll just end this with a picture from our sunset reception on the Continental Avenue Bridge and a promise that this new NNIP convert will be first on the plane next time I’m invited to one of the meetings!