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You've got data -- Now what? School Facts Jax tames the tangle of school data

by: Lisa Williams |

What do people really want from your data?  

These days, data -- data visualization, data journalism, and data-driven civic apps -- are the new black.  There are hackathons, national data challenges, grant programs, and groups putting coders to work on behalf of cities.  

There's also more publicly available data than ever before -- the data.gov repository of public data from the federal government has 378,000 data sets.  The World Bank has more.  Cities from Ann Arbor to Paris are setting up public, online repositories of data about civic life from spending to law enforcement to education.  

But what does the average citizen actually want out of all that data?  What's going to help them have a better life, or be a better citizen?  

Jason Rose at the Jacksonville Public Education Fund got an in-depth look at this question as he developed SchoolFactsJax, a website that attempts to make the data on Duval County's public schools accessible to everybody with a web browser.  

When I asked him what he'd recommend to organizations with similar aims, he said: "The first thing I would say is to take the time up front to really understand the data and what it is your audience needs or wants to know from it.  One of the unique issues of working with education data is that there is typically more performance information available than anyone knows what to do with."

Rose and the team at the Jacksonville Fund for Public Education decreased their knowledge gap by spending a lot of time with stakeholders directly: "Over the year or so we spent working to launch the first phase of School Facts Jax, the majority of it was spent gathering input from different audiences and partners on what questions people most wanted to be able to answer about our local schools, what the best data points would be to answer those questions, and what was the best way to present that information to make it both accessible and meaningful to our audiences."

Because of the large volume of data, Rose says that many organizations decide that throwing all the data together and just making it searchable is enough.   "The temptation this often creates for organizations looking to promote access to that data is to just pull everything together and connect it all to an interface that allows users to call up anything available through a few search options.  While this can be great for helping people who already know specifically what to be looking for, it does not add any meaning or guidance to those who don’t."

But how do you decide how to present that data to an audience, if search and click isn't the right approach?  "As part of thinking about the best way to present data to your audience, I would also add not to underestimate the importance of aesthetics in your design and visualizations.  There are a number of prepackaged software programs out there that can all create basic dashboard tools that are perfectly functional, but vary widely in customization options.  Think first about how you would want to present the data so that it is clear and engaging for users, then find the software (or programmers) that can make that vision happen for you.  Don’t choose a software first and let it dictate your design, make your design needs dictate the software you choose."

Most public data is not "live," Rose points out: "Changes in things like principal placements, enrollment numbers, data corrections, etc. happen frequently and unpredictably in education.  The better your relationship with these entities, the easier it will be to ask them to help keep you notified of these updates or, even better, connect your site directly to their systems to automate these kinds of small, ongoing updates."

Newsrooms are also big consumers of data, but don't usually have the time to spend months developing stakeholder relations, and few have the resources to build standalone single-topic sites like School Facts Jax.  But how could news organizations collaborate with nonprofits, which are increasingly taking a role in making public data accessible?

Deirdre Connor, the communications director for the Jacksonville Fund for Public Education, has a background in journalism, and says "In my opinion the best advice for news outlets (speaking both as a former journalist and in my current role) is to have an ongoing conversation with organizations such as ours. Building that relationship ensures that you will know what we have planned and vice versa. Sometimes the best option will be to cover our project and use it as a source of information. At other times, there may be opportunities for partnership. But you will never know unless you have an established relationship of trust and goal-sharing."  

Rose concurs. "I agree, and would also add some specific examples of how that the kind of ongoing communication between media outlets and non-profit information providers can have very tangible benefits for both organizations.  One benefit that our local media outlets have already realized is that the existence of our site is going to make their jobs easier, in terms of being able to quickly find basic background or reference information about school or district performance for their purposes.  In addition, we have built in a section of our site called 'What's New', dedicated to providing responsive and regularly updated new analysis on topical issues in education.  For media outlets that maintain an ongoing relationship with us and our work, we can help inform them of what's coming up and provide ready-made, meaningful analysis on topics as they arise - which outlets can choose to share, feature, expand on, or even critique as they see fit.  In return, our site benefits from any exposure that a featured analysis or credited reference provides."

School Facts Jax is a winner of the Knight Community Information Challenge with support from The Community Foundation in Jacksonville. The project got a fair amount of coverage in local media.  Here's a clip from a local TV affiliate on the project:  

This blog is made possible by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Lisa Williams

Lisa Williams is the Director of Digital Engagement for the Investigative News Network. She is also CEO and founder of Placeblogger.com,
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