The Evolution of LA Counts

Posted on 07/07/17 by Chris Compton

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You can see the idea of the project in a single number: 800,000. According to the 2010 census, that’s how many Long-term Permanent Residents in Los Angeles County were eligible to attain citizenship. It’s an incredible figure, the highest in the U.S., larger than the population of Seattle.

As media outlets picked up the story in 2011, this single data point drew a lot of attention. National and local funders who understood the incredible benefits of citizenship joined forces to invest in LA naturalization programs. In partnership with local nonprofits, they strengthened the capacity of citizenship service providers and successfully advocated for public policy changes that expanded access to citizenship information. Thanks to this and other campaigns, the county saw double-digit percentage increases in naturalizations.

Data drives storytelling, which inspires collaboration, which fuels advocacy and action, which create change. That’s the heart of LA Counts: a data platform where users can discover data, stories and an engaged community dedicated to building a better LA.

The Limits of LA Data

The California Community Foundation (CCF) has a history of investing in LA County data. From the 2010 census, where CCF played a major role in efforts to raise completion rates, to funding research and data projects in areas like smart growth, immigrant integration and education, the foundation saw data as crucial to improving the lives of Los Angeles County residents.

But too often, the data we needed most was incomplete, inaccessible or completely absent. How can you deal with gentrification without current data on evictions and rising rents? How can you promote college access without a clear picture of academic preparation and financial aid resources?

Most frustrating was the fact that much of this information was out there, collected by public or private institutions. But without open access, we were left guessing on issues that affect huge numbers of Angelenos. How can you work to improve the lives of L.A. County’s most vulnerable individuals without knowing who they are and what they need?

Inspiration and Iteration

The idea for LA Counts began as a community indicators project. CCF drew inspiration from Chicago’s CMAP, the Boston Indicators Project, Toronto’s Vital Signs and others, programs that release regular reports highlighting key data on community issues. As CCF began investigating what it would take to pull together data focused around the needs of LA communities, a few points became clear:

Reports are snapshots. In LA, the pictures move. Traditional indicators provide static, periodically updated reports. A region this complex is constantly changing, and the site had to be able to change with it. When new datasets were released, LA Counts needed to be able to stay current, so updates to the site would have to follow the availability of new data rather than an arbitrary schedule.

LA Counts is a hub, not a host. By connecting users to datasets rather than hosting them ourselves, the site would be able to be both timely and free from the technical challenges inherent in hosting and managing a huge index of datasets. This pushed us away from costly and cumbersome visualization tools and let us focus on providing a simple, easy to navigate library.

Open data is a strategy and a goal. As LA Counts evolved, the ideas driving the open data movement became more deeply ingrained into the DNA of the site. “Open” was both an adjective and a verb. The site would point users to open data resources, but it was also intended to help open up more data sources over time. By creating a larger audience for open data, the site would drive demand from publishers for more open and accessible datasets. And by measuring and drawing attention to metadata completion, it would help to increase the quality, usability and navigability of sets currently available to the public.

Storytelling transforms data into action. The problem faced by Los Angeles isn’t a lack of data, it’s a lack of understanding why that data matters. Powerful, data-driven stories are ammunition for advocacy, providing social change activists with the tools to convince policymakers, media with the tools draw the public’s attention and policymakers with the tools to persuade constituents and colleagues.

Communities spark change. Los Angeles County is filled with people who have the drive, knowledge, influence or expertise to improve the lives of its residents. But they’re often siloed. LA Counts needed to highlight a through-line — belief in the power of data and concern for L.A. County — to connect data experts, storytellers, social change advocates, funders and policymakers with each other, pool their skills and passion and focus them on the county’s greatest needs. Over the long term, the community the site creates could be its strongest and most lasting contribution to advancing change in Los Angeles.

Over the course of five years, these lessons and others drove the creation of something different, a community data platform. Thanks to an internal team partnering with [OKI] (https://okfn.org/), Compiler.LA, Shift3, KBDA plus an incredible advisory committee, LA Counts has become stronger, more responsive and more focused on making a real difference in the lives of Angelenos.

Most importantly, we distilled and crystallized the algorithm that drives the site. Not a technical algorithm, but an equation that takes a user from discovery to impact: Data + Storytelling + Collaboration = Change.

Beta and Beyond

As LA Counts moves through beta and into launch, we continue to grow, evolve and adapt to the needs of our users and the communities we all serve. Our future depends on our ability to take our own medicine, to measure our progress and learn from the data, to uphold the principles of openness and transparency, to tell compelling stories, collaborate and draw attention to the most pressing issues facing L.A. And by doing so, help to create real, lasting and positive change for Los Angeles County.

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