Themes from the NNIP San Antonio Spring 2016 Meeting

From April 6th – April 8th, I attended the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) Meeting in San Antonio, Texas. NNIP is a network of city partners that collects, analyzes, and evangelizes neighborhood data. The idea of “data for local action” underscores this important work. Above all, NNIP is a community of practice.



The bi-annual meetings are when partners collaborate in person and share out work. I represented the Smart Chicago Collaborative at the meeting, joining essential Chicago data intermediaries Heartland Alliance and the Woodstock Institute.

This blog post is organized by the major themes that captured my interest at NNIP:

  • NNIP’s new commitment to centralizing data training resources
  • The challenge of capturing and quantifying civic participation
  • The promise of integrated data systems for future neighborhood research
  • The need for more usability testing of local data tools

You can read a similar recap blog post from the fall 2015 NNIP Meeting in Dallas, Texas here.

NNIP 2016 4

NNIP’s commitment to data training

On the first day of the San Antonio NNIP meeting, NNIP announced a new project with Microsoft Technology and Civic Engagement: “Expanding Training in Using Data and Technology to Improve Communities.

According to the project website:

This project focuses on expanding training opportunities for local audiences who work professionally or as civic activists to serve communities and improve neighborhood conditions. Training can help these dedicated individuals use data and technology to perform their daily work more efficiently, effectively, and inclusively.  Examples include ways to access, interpret, combine, and analyze data, as well as approaches to visualize and communicate data-based stories and results.

NNIP will conduct a scan of civic training and resources across its partners and other organizations. To further inform that scan, there will be a working session at the next NNIP meeting in Cleveland. With the results from the scan and cross-city collaboration, NNIP plans to publish a guide on data training and share a bank of open curricula for local organizations to use. This would be an amazing national resource for organizations within and beyond the NNIP network.

I look forward to following this project and seeing how Smart Chicago can contribute to the bank of knowledge that NNIP assembles. Smart Chicago sees data and digital literacy as essential pieces to a healthy tech ecosystem. We have already committed to this type of training and capacity building through the Chicago School of Data and Connect Chicago. Smart Chicago has ample resources and lessons to share from our work and we are supportive of other cities seeking to replicate our models.

The challenge of capturing civic participation measures

At Smart Chicago, we see technology is a means to civic engagement and prosperity rather than an end in itself. One of the most interesting conversations at the San Antonio NNIP meeting was about quantifying and measuring civic participation in innovative ways. Representatives from Portland State University, DataSpark RI and the University of Minnesota shared their recent work in this area.

When thinking about civic participation indicators, a natural question arises: how can we go beyond voter participation and registration data to capture a more holistic picture of civic engagement in our cities? I was inspired to see NNIP partners using measures like non-emergency 311 reports and AmeriCorps volunteer data to understand local engagement and civic action across neighborhoods.

I was also interested in how different ages and demographic groups practiced civic participation.

One of my favorite resources shared was DataHaven’s 2016 Connecticut Civic Health Index which uses data on charitable giving, community meeting participation, and trust in neighborhoods to capture a well-rounded “civic health” indicator.

The promise of integrated data systems for future neighborhood research

NNIP partners from Cleveland, New York, Baltimore, Providence, Pittsburgh, and Pinellas County participated in a cross-site project called “Connecting People and Place: Improving Communities through Integrated Data Systems.”

There are several approaches to and definitions of integrated data systems, but in NNIP’s own words:

Integrated Data Systems (IDS) link data at the individual level from multiple government agencies such as schools, juvenile justice, and human services, and can also include data from non-governmental service providers. The systems can be used for case management and for program monitoring and evaluation, and have privacy protections governing access to the data.

At the NNIP San Antonio meeting, representatives from New York and Cleveland shared out their experiences from the cross-site project. New York University’s Furman Center used an integrated data system and machine learning to predict city buildings where residents’ risk of entering a homeless shelter was highest. Case Western Reserve University used their integrated data system to understand and predict kindergarten readiness.

NNIP partners shared other results and advice from integrated data system work:

NNIP has many resources on integrated data systems including a suggested reading list and an ever-growing list of projects across the country.

The need for more usability testing of local data tools

The theme of creating user-friendly interactions with data and technology was interwoven through the NNIP meeting.

On the first day of the meeting, the San Antonio NNIP partner CI:Now discussed how residents’ difficulties with understanding and using online forms impacted CI:Now’s ability to collect neighborhood data. If forms were not user-friendly or if residents in a neighborhood lacked the digital skills to fill out the online forms, there was an obstacle to both civic engagement and meaningful research.

The NNIP meeting’s session on website redesigns also echoed the theme of usability challenges. Building or improving portals or data products requires feedback. Unfortunately, there is not always a local organization or civic process in place to dedicated that that usability work.

Given this repeated theme throughout the NNIP meeting, I was pleased to see Nic Moe of Austin’s Children’s Optimal Health facilitate a “camp” conversation on how partners can embrace UX testing.

Smart Chicago would like to be a resource for NNIP partners interested in broader civic engagement and usability testing. Smart Chicago wrote the book on civic user testing. We also share best practices from our CUTGroup project through the new CUTGroup Collective. We are pleased to invite NNIP partners into the CUTGroup Collective and help organizations build a civic user testing community in their own cities. In addition to making data and technology tools better, this testing is also vehicle for meaningful resident engagement and skill-building.  

You find out more information about the CUTGroup Collective and get involved with the community here.

NNIP San Antonio was a thought-provoking convening hitting on many moving target projects and questions that Smart Chicago grapples with daily — from the Array of Things Civic Engagement work to Healthy Chicago 2.0 on the Health Atlas. We are pleased to collaborate with this network and seek new ways to contribute to and add value to this community of neighborhood data practitioners.

You can access the presentations and materials from the San Antonio NNIP meeting here.