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Demystifying Civic Data Through Song, and 10 Other Civic Tech Finalists in the Knight Cities Challenge

One organization's quest to pair data with a banjo.

The average person doesn’t know how to access an API. But they do listen to music.

That’s the driving idea behind a proposal from the Office of Creative Research (OCR) in New York: to make data valuable to people by interpreting it in more human ways.

Specifically, they want to do that by telling data stories through bluegrass music.

“We’ve been thinking for a long time about this sort of divide that exists between data and culture,” said Jer Thorp, OCR’s co-founder. “Data is usually communicated through these really sterile means like charts and graphs. And they’re designed for a really narrow purpose … like policy decisions.”

But especially in the age of ubiquitous government open data, it’s also supposed to be for the people. That’s the concept behind Socrata’s open data portals, Esri’s story maps and a recent collaboration between LiveStories and the U.S. Department of Defense.

So Thorp, along with OCR Director of Projects A’yen Tran, work on ways to make data more human, more interesting and more meaningful. One of their ideas, which was recently named a finalist for the 2017 Knight Cities Challenge program, was to tell stories with data through a cultural staple of Appalachia: bluegrass music.

“Music, and the techniques you hear in bluegrass, are really about emotion and experience,” Thorp said. “Those are things that are missing (from data).”

To do that, they want to head to the heart of bluegrass country — Lexington, Ky. Not only is the city home to the Festival of the Bluegrass, one of the oldest such events in the country, but it’s also home to an open data portal with nearly 100 data sets available online. Tran said it’s also important that there is a robust culture of communal collaboration in Lexington as well.

“It seems like exactly the kind of place where people would be open to this kind of wild exploration,” she said.

And that’s just what they want the project to be — collaborative. Tran and Thorp want the musicians, the civic leaders, the community of Appalachia to come up with their own ideas and figure out what data is really meaningful to them. And they might not just stick to the open data portals of the region, either. The project could involve building new data sets.

“In my experience there’s always some other stuff under the surface that might be useful as well,” Thorp said.

The project is one of 144 finalists for the challenge. The Knight Foundation expects to pick its winners in the spring, doling out up to $5 million in funding between them.

Several of the other entries involved civic tech. Among them are:

  • Detroit, City Asset Map: Fostering connection and civic involvement in Detroit by creating a map that highlights cultural, educational and mobility resources, such as libraries, health centers, museums, educational spaces, bike infrastructure and parks.
  • Detroit, Neighborhood Voice: Improving ways to obtain feedback from neighborhoods by supporting the best connected people — such as barbers, bartenders and baristas — to get and share feedback through technology, tools and training.
  • Ft. Wayne, Ind., Alumni Association: Keeping and attracting talented workers to Ft. Wayne through a digital platform that connects local graduates, with the goal of encouraging those who leave the city to return.
  • Lexington, Ky., Informing and engaging more people about the issues facing city government through a new digital platform.
  • Milledgeville, Ga., The Year of Voting Dangerously: Engaging the community with a mobile voting booth that prompts residents to respond to pressing local issues and initiatives.
  • Philadelphia, Just Space Audit: Creating and deploying an audit tool to assess the accessibility and equity of a public space network.
  • Philadelphia, Before, During and After Redlining: Highlighting inequality and the negative effects of denying services to specific residents through the practice of redlining with an interactive data map and exhibition.
  • Philadelphia, Mobile Design Lab: Providing a space for Philadelphians to design city service solutions with a mobile, participatory city design lab that will travel from neighborhood to neighborhood.
  • St. Paul, Minn., Black Market: Advancing a deeper awareness of black creativity and culture with a digital directory of black artists and organizations; the project aims to better connect the black creative community with other civic and public organizations interested in diversifying their boards, staff, vendors and programming.
  • Multiple cities, Civic Incite: Citizens Setting the Agenda (submitted by Civic Incite): Inspiring civic engagement with an online platform that tracks public meetings and legislation across cities to promote in-person engagement with local governments.
Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.