Meet Caroline Bhalla. Caroline runs the Neighborhood Data for Social Change Initiative through the USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation. This platform enables users to visualize data in their communities in areas ranging from demographics, employment, housing, the environment, health, social connectedness and more. It provides an awesome opportunity for experienced and new data users alike to understand and relay how their neighborhood functions.
How did you get interested in data?
I was working at the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at NYU in Grad School. One of my tasks was to upload data to an online portal, and I immediately saw the benefits. I don’t have a degree in data science, but I’ve worked in the data space ever since.
What are your go-to analysis and visualization tools?
The Neighborhood Data for Social Change platform runs on Socrata. While you can interact with the neighborhood data through the tool, it also allows you to download the raw data. To create visualizations for our data stories, we work with the downloaded data in Tableau.
What issue in Los Angeles do you think has the most potential for a data-driven solution?
Data allows you to illuminate trends across issues, and it’s necessary for addressing all of the challenges Los Angeles County faces, from managing neighborhood change to health and education. However, data isn’t always just about describing what’s going wrong. Data can also tell us what’s working in communities, which is why we work to track things like social connectedness. Though these more abstract concepts can be more difficult to quantify than things like recidivism or unemployment, they are essential for talking about assets rather than just issues.
What’s your favorite “data-story”?
The ongoing story we’re writing through the Neighborhood Data for Social Change (NDSC) Initiative. I would contribute our success so far to three features of the project. Number one is the data stories, which allow us to integrate writing, data visualization and photos to talk about things like home ownership in Boyle Heights, access to parks and greenspace and “opportunity youth” across the County.
The second piece is that we curate our datasets. We don’t want people to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data available, so in creating the platform we underwent a thorough stakeholder engagement process and asked people what data would be useful to them. We spoke with City and County representatives, nonprofit organizations, community groups and more to get their input.
The third component is our in-person training. Since launching the platform in October of 2017, we have lead 8 trainings, half at USC and half at other locations provided by our partners like the Community Coalition and Cal State Long Beach. Through the trainings, we show people how they can deeply engage with the platform, from making maps to exploring the different raw datasets available. Our USC trainings happen on the third Wednesday of every month, and we are planning on hosting off-site trainings across the city so we can reach different communities.
It took us five years to build the platform, and we didn’t want it to gather dust online. Effective outreach enables the other components of our platform. In order to help spread the word about the NDSC Initiative, we send out a newsletter, actively maintain our social media accounts and work with KCET to spread our data stories.
What advice do you have for someone looking to start using LA Counts datasets to tell their own stories?
Don’t get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data available. Remember, data is a tool, it doesn’t provide questions or answers on its own. Explore the platform and see what emerges. We built the NDSC platform to help civic actors make change, not to simply host data.