Erica’s 15 Years at D3

Picture of former and current D3 employees from 2018, gathered on the steps of the stone building where the D3 office used to be

The oldest picture we can find of D3, probably from spring 2009

We celebrated the fifteenth year of Data Driven Detroit this past October, but this month marks my own fifteen year anniversary with the organization.  February 2009 still feels like yesterday to me, and yet I look around me and it seems that everything has changed.  

I started at D3 as a research analyst, still working on my master of urban planning at Wayne State University.  There was our founding director, Kurt Metzger, Gregory Parrish, who came over from the City’s Planning and Development Department, and we were soon joined by AmeriCorps member Andy Wishka.  Our small, scrappy team was literally building our own desks and computers.  We would run around the city with hard drives to convince data keepers to share copies of datasets, then bring them back to the office and spend hours copying them onto our own computers, scouring them for understanding, merging datasets together to clean them and make meaning of them.

When people reached out to us for data or analysis, we started with spreadsheets and tables, maps, and some rudimentary online tools to share data publicly.  In those early years, people needed custom neighborhood profiles that listed out numbers and percentages of various indicators that they could use to write grant proposals.  I was able to use all the data assembled at D3 and my newly-honed mapping skills to support my capstone team at Wayne State University as we developed a neighborhood plan for Recovery Park, an urban farming organization that provided opportunities to people with criminal records and people recovering from addiction.  My work at D3 to access crime data from the Detroit Police Department, and the huge undertaking by D3 and partners to collect data on the condition of all residential parcels in Detroit, made it possible for me to do my master’s essay on the intersection of vacancy, blight, and crime.  I eventually partnered with George Galster to extend that work into a published article in the Journal of Urban Affairs. As I think back on the first few years, they were really all about unearthing hidden datasets and occasionally creating new ones, like the Detroit Residential Parcel Survey (a precursor to Motor City Mapping), when we needed them.

And then two interesting things happened.   Externally, instead of having to pry data from ancient servers and computers, suddenly data was everywhere.  Storage costs had come down, technology had become  easier to use, and people in government, impact, and other sectors were learning to collect data differently.  Where we were once trying to address a desert of available information, we were now drowning in a flood of data.  Meanwhile, internally, I assumed the Executive Director role at D3, a position I’ve now held for ten years.  When I suddenly found myself in a leadership role I never expected to hold, I was terrified.  I made a lot of mistakes early on, and while I still make them today, I hope they are fewer in number these days.  What I learned from those early and very humbling errors is that being an executive director doesn’t mean I suddenly have all the answers.  Everyone around me – both at D3 and out in the community – has insights and perspectives that, when brought together, can lead us and the organization in the right direction.  This meant that I – and the team – worked diligently to bring diversity of background, thought, life circumstance, and other characteristics to the small but mighty team that comprises D3.  We embedded a philosophy of learning from failures and successes into our culture, which includes looking at ourselves as well as other organizations near and far.

As a result of these substantial changes, our work has changed substantially, as well.  To accommodate both this increase in data availability and the changing needs of our partners over time, we now focus more intensively on creating tools and processes that allow us to serve many needs at once – making us a true data hub for our community. In place of our sometimes haphazard efforts to leverage data from various walled gardens is a regularly-updated data warehouse that feeds sophisticated online tools. We still do a good amount of spreadsheets, maps, and charts, but our online tools have become much more sustainable, expansive, and user friendly as we built our infrastructure to accommodate more data and feedback from users.  Our State of the Child and Housing Information Portal tools now answer about half of the AskD3 requests we receive, freeing up our time to partner more deeply with even more organizations across the region who are working to improve quality of life in our community.

This paradigm shift is also evident in one of our longest-running projects – one that we are excited to release soon.  To give a little background, my very first project at D3 was called the One D Scorecard, which was a collection of an absurd number of indicators comparing the Detroit region to others across the country.  It’s now one of many indicator and index projects collecting dust on the shelves.  I think there are a few reasons it didn’t catch on:

  • it started from a group CEOs, not from grassroots organizations doing the work
  • it had a single funder, who stayed committed for a bit, but then the internal champions moved on
  • it presented a regional picture, which is important, but didn’t have the ability for local organizations to see where to focus their efforts
  • the picture it presented was overwhelmingly bleak for the Detroit area with no connection to actions that could change the indicators.   

We spent years learning lessons from this scorecard and other projects, so when we were approached to support the creation of another index for Detroit, we decided to “fail forward”.  We took a systematic approach to identifying all the reasons past projects were not broadly adopted and used to drive community change, and we worked with partners to design a different approach that would give this new effort every possible chance for success.

In a few short days, D3, in partnership with JFM Consulting Group, Community Development Advocates of Detroit, and the Michigan Nonprofit Association, will be releasing the inaugural Neighborhood Vitality Index (NVI) for the City of Detroit.  This first product is just one of several we have planned, and 2024 will be the first year we are not in “pilot mode” for the project.  And so that others can learn from our fail forward approach, we have documented all the ways the NVI is different from past projects, along with the whole history of the NVI and the lessons our team learned along the way.

I know we have much more work ahead of us at D3, and I’m also delighted to reflect back on just how far we’ve come.  But perhaps our proudest achievements are the structures that we’ve established to ensure that the things that set D3 apart – our commitment to a community-centered approach and the institutional knowledge base that’s been built up over more than fifteen years – will be here long into the future.  Through our Co-Executive Director leadership model and our worker-owned cooperative structure, we have been able to ensure that no matter the composition of the team, D3 will have an inclusive, equitable culture with a strong team of dedicated individuals who are committed to our mission and to serving Metro Detroit’s nonprofit community.

Do you need Erica’s and D3’s expertise on your project? AskD3 for free to get started!

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