Community Profile: Umi Hsu

Posted on 06/19/18 by LA Counts


Umi Hsu works as a digital strategist for the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) in the City of Los Angeles. Their work leads design strategy and data initiatives while inspiring a network of data stewards--people who put cultural data to work toward impactful community change.

How’d you get into data?

After finishing my PhD in Ethnomusicology and a postdoc at Occidental College, I was looking for ways to bring knowledge into social fruition. This meant looking for work that produces social impact and demonstrates the relevance of abstract, humanist thinking. I found myself attracted to civic work. Drawn to the notion of knowledge as a public good, I like thinking about knowledge the same way we think of water as a shared resource that's available to everyone. I felt a natural fit in the data world, particularly at the intersection of civics and technology.

In your opinion, what gives a dataset value?

Let’s talk about scaffolding. How do people discover new things, patterns, and insights? Newness is defined in relation to what's there already there. Like when using Legos, the first step is to build the foundation, i.e., assessing the questions that have already been asked. Only then can we start looking at data with a more refined lens. This scaffold helps us to reach a higher tier of discovery and learning that's meaningful not only for the project at stake but for the broader field.

If these questions have already been asked and people have found different answers, then what else can we discover as insightful or build as a valuable method or model? A new visual vocabulary for representing data or a metadata schema for surfacing new data relationships? Or a playbook for data-driven community engagement? Value is often determined within the context of existing knowledge and operational architecture.

What issue in Los Angeles do you think has the most potential for a data-driven solution?

When considering pressing issues such as homelessness, displacement, immigration, and police brutality in our region, cultural data allows us to engage with the difficult-to-grasp dimensions of social life such as wellness and quality of life. Social scientists have traditionally measured the absence of positive social characteristics and focused on the opposite of community and social connectedness. Cultural data allows us to cut through the commonly measured and wrestle with challenging questions such as: How do we develop a sense of belonging? How do we make connections as communities? What are the qualities of togetherness and isolation? Where are the sites of connectedness in our city? Cultural data evokes stories and provokes people to ask deeper questions about the meanings of their lives. Culture can motivate people to tell stories and bring people together. Asking constituents to identify what's important to them can help shape the data we should be and perhaps are not collecting at the moment.

This is what we are doing in Promise Zone Arts, a cultural asset mapping initiative that foregrounds community-sourcing of cultural data. We ask community members to offer stories about cultural treasures that are deemed significant to them. In doing so, the city gain an entry point into facets of community life that are outside of the administrative framework of municipal proper economic development projects. The presence of cultural pillars (and the opposite, “lost treasures”) is critical in the formation of social connectedness and potentially plays a role as a solution to social isolation.

In the US, we have seen a tendency to relegate arts and culture to leisure to be consumed or to entertain. In reality, people participate in culture in complex ways related to their sense of self and community. Though hard to measure, these underlying forces govern our lives in powerful ways, i.e., protesting a cultural monument or following a brand. If we can bring culture into the discussions of collective wellbeing, we can then uncover and mobilize the deep mechanism of what moves people individually and collectively.

Share and walk through an example of your work related to data.

The goal of Neighborhood Arts Profile is to put arts and culture on the map. In this project, we visualize the geography of DCA’s service delivery infrastructure, namely the community art centers, theaters, and nonprofit arts grantee offices. To further DCA's mission to increase arts access and equity, we incorporated additional data to contextualize our areas of service. We integrated school data such as the LAUSD's Arts Equity index and layers with community and social data from the Census and California’s Human Development Index (HDI). We also worked with our Mayor’s Innovation Team to incorporate data from Los Angeles Index of Displacement Pressure. DCA works with many arts and cultural communities that are on the brink of displacement given the economic development and environmental shifts in the city. We wanted a broader sense of how these communities are doing and how much risk of displacement they may be facing in the next few years. This tool has helped us gain place-specific insights for the purpose of planning to better support the cultural communities across Los Angeles in this time of change.

What’s your favorite “data-story”?

Sharing data with our staff through the Neighborhood Arts Profile has been a productive process of discovery and illumination. We brought in a data layer related to US poverty rates. In 2014, the national average of poverty rate was 6.2 households above the poverty line to 1 household below the poverty line (6.2:1). This shapefile visualizes census tracts based on the poverty density in the area relative to the national average. The map is visually coded by a color spectrum from orange to green where shades of green represent poverty rates lower than the national average and gradients of orange indicate higher poverty density. LA is both very orange and very green. Visualizing this large swath of orange dearth adjacent to the wealth abundance coded in dark green portrays the stark reality of our city. Projecting this on a big screen during a staff meeting had a chilling effect. I remember experiencing a moment of silence when everyone felt the weight of what we were viewing.

Knowing that we are working hard to serve the underserved communities, data can give us affirmations. It also helps us take a step back and revisit our decision-making processes and program design to see how we can improve our distribution of services toward the department mission of city-wide arts equity.

What advice do you have for someone looking to start using LA Counts datasets to tell their own stories?

Everyone comes to data differently. What matters to people varies, too. We should take stock of our beliefs, values, and intentions and be clear about them when looking to data for answers. I am excited about LA Counts as an equity-driven tool that's framed around meaningful social change in Los Angeles County. Honoring the equity framework, LA Counts encourages users to consider data with respect to types of positive social change we would like for the region: Is it zero poverty? Affordable housing? Access to transportation and education?

The evaluation of data comes from a personal place. Many people who work with data have very little time to engage with questions related to values and missions. It feels like we're always hunting for and gathering data, contacting people or cleaning data.

The reflective inquiry is also critical in a collective setting. Data work is collective work, and collective work is most impactful when it is based on a shared set of values. Looking for insights within an organizational setting involves building consensus on the meanings derived from the data collectively. Asking what matters to our colleagues and the community of stakeholders and constituents can help set the tone and direction of how we seek knowledge for social good.

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