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USC Offers Regional Groups More Resources to Explore Data Stories

The Southern California university is helping an assortment of government groups tap into a relatively new data platform that provides innovative opportunities for research, policy and storytelling.

For two years, the University of Southern California has offered a unique, data-driven platform with innovative benefits for government that collates information on communities in Los Angeles County.

The Neighborhood Data for Social Change initiative is the product of the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation — a group that focuses on policy solutions for low-income urban communities — and offers a view of aggregate and up-to-date data at varying levels, including city, neighborhood and Census tract. It's powerd by Socrata, which is a data solution from Tyler Technologies. 

The platform also recently launched a unique crime feature — the NDSC Criminal Justice Data Initiative — that tracks crime data in how it intersects with other relevant issues like housing, income, and arrest rates.  

But users of the data, as innovative as it is, frequently need more guidance to optimize its usage, said Caroline Bhalla, managing director of the Price Center. 

That's why the university recently started offering county residents the free opportunity to learn how to optimize the experience with the platform. Every third Wednesday of the month, community training sessions are offered free of charge, to anyone. Typically, however, they draw interest from local government and nonprofit organizations, who use the data for presentations, research and analysis of local problems, Bhalla said.  

"It's really just a public good and we want to make sure that people have the skills to use it," said Bhalla in a recent interview with Government Technology. "All of this data that's free and easy is all well and good, but if you don't have people using it, it's all for naught," she said.

So far, the trainings have helped upward of 350 people to better use and deploy the platform. 

"You'd be surprised how many different kinds of people come to the trainings," she said, explaining that while many people come from neighborhood councils and nonprofits, they also get students and researchers, as well as just curious local residents. 

The center also has plans to eventually teach classes in data-driven storytelling, a move that compliments its recent partnership with the county's local public media organization to produce a series of data stories that focus on local issues like community health, homelessness and housing, and pedestrian safety. 

"We need to find a way to make it really accessible to folks so they can find it useful," she said, and explained that community groups found these data stories to be a useful tool for their various initatives and programs.   

Looking to the future, the group also hopes to expand not just the diversity of trainings that are offered, but to also expand their audience reach by putting them in a webinar format that can be viewable online. 

"The trainings are a neat way for people to start digging into neighborhood data. We know [groups] find them useful, so we hope to serve as many people as we can," Bhalla said. 

Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.