So, what is this LA Counts thing?

Posted on 03/23/19 by Carla Casilli


LA Counts is both a website and a growing group of data practitioners, hackers, civic activists, journalists, researchers, students and government workers using open data to tell the stories of Los Angeles County and make it better, safer, cleaner and more equitable. Co-developed with Angelenos, LA Counts is offered as a public good for civic engagement and participation. Our sweet spot? Making all data about Los Angeles County openly accessible, transparent and accountable. Our hypothesis? That a data-focused community of practice armed with simple, searchable access to data centered on specific problem areas can contribute insight, suggest solutions, and provide vision toward an improved Los Angeles County.

For years, funders, philanthropists, and government officials have had to make do with limited amounts of available public data or bear the cost to find or improve that data. Individuals and journalists have had to file FOIA or CPRA requests to gain access to taxpayer-funded data. This relatively laissez-faire approach has resulted in uneven response and erratic action plans. Public attention to data ranges from periodic awareness and fervor—for example immediately after homelessness data are released—to a dead-calm lull after the initial media and journalistic reporting surge wears off.

LA Counts is underpinned by a belief that increased access and interpretation of open data can not only incite public action and civic interest, it can change hearts and minds. We believe that open data can be a forceful catalyst for innovation and transformation. A simple credo defines and focuses our work: advocacy for data and data for advocacy.

Early on in the establishment of our work—when we were still called the Social Change Data Commons—the team inaugurated an advisory group to help inform and guide our LA County-specific work. Along with that group, plus branding and naming experts, we decided on our mission, selected specific focus topics, and renamed the initiative LA Counts.

Since 2013, we have explored, imagined, investigated, researched, and dreamed about the possibilities and power of open data combined with meaningful stories, all with the aim of establishing the first and only platform to gather all of Los Angeles County's open data into one place.

So what have we accomplished? We’ve connected with other open data initiatives around the nation to ensure that LA Counts is building on the most informed open data practices. We’ve searched for and curated datasets across hundreds of different websites and portals to ensure that we can harvest the correct data from them. Using the W3C DCAT standards as a lodestone, we've established minimum metadata criteria for datasets. We've built and beta-tested an initial search engine and website. We've learned that a bespoke open source model can be far less efficient and less workable than implementing an open source, open data platform: CKAN, what you're using right now.

We've interviewed data journalists and data practitioners, surveyed and spoken with data publishers, performed a landscape analysis of data-focused initiatives, connected with other open data proponents ad initiatives, explored opportunities for partnerships, and worked to highlight important open data projects across the county. In place of audiences, we've realized that our community is a whole host of data and data-adjacent individuals and organizations.

Having spent quite a while considering the potential for this work, including considering dashboards and indices, we've opted instead for gross inclusiveness of data and direct access to original source material along with stories that help to unpack and explain the value of public access to data. You're welcome, btw.

But building a needed resource is not enough: action is necessary. So, we’re galvanizing interested but untapped talent and collectively moving toward active volunteer engagement through working groups focused on, among other things, developing new data visualizations that reveal new insights, sharing and writing data-informed stories, and suggesting where data might actually be missing.

In a world fascinated and obsessed with data, it’s easy to home in on numbers and look past the people they represent or the work that's required to collect and improve that data. We get it, so our approach is grounded in activism. And, since LA Counts is also open source, you can jump on our github repository and help to build and evolve the site. We hope you'll join us, use what we've created, share it with others, and continue to build and explore the potential for data to effect positive change in Los Angeles County.

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