UIX: Citizen Labs’ volunteer data scientists are making a difference with maps

Before a group of volunteer data scientists came along, the Grand Rapids city budget may as well have been written in invisible ink, on a broken typewriter, in Klingon.


The details of the city budget are released in June, but residents who delay their comment until then are "behind the 8-ball," says Citizen Labs' founder Allen Clark.


"They might address your issue," Clark says. "But if you really want to make a difference, really want to be heard, you know, maybe come out in December or January when department budgets are being submitted."


Allen ClarkPart of that hurdle was cleared up when the Knight Foundation provided the city with the use of its interactive timeline. Visitors can find a year's worth of important dates, along with a description of what goes on, what's due, and what can be brought up at that particular milestone.


Meanwhile, Citizen Labs, then a newly-minted nonprofit consultancy, spearheaded an illustrated report showing how the city's budget funds are allocated, the split between discretionary and non-discretionary funds, and the direction in which money from each of those buckets flows.


A few hours after it was launched in 2018, the proof of their project was recorded by Google Analytics. Founding members Clark and Joel Anderson expected to see a spike in traffic from local residents as they began to understand the implications of their city budget.


Then they saw who was using it.


Seventy-five percent of the traffic could be traced back to a single address: Grand Rapids City Hall. Even city staffers needed help understanding the intricacies of the budget, it seems. Thankfully for them, being open source and generated by a group of dedicated volunteers, the assistance is free of charge and available 24/7.


If a picture is worth a thousand words, Citizen Labs' work is a photo album, one that's connecting open-sourced data points from regional nonprofits and government to informative and interactive web-based dashboards, and keeping residents throughout the state informed of the actions their government is taking.




The seed that grew into what now involves 102 members of an active Slack channel, 172 involved in bi-monthly Meetups, and 219 followers of the Citizen Labs Facebook group fell from a branch of Code for America, another volunteer-based collaborative seeking to simplify and improve government services through technology. Allen and Anderson were both involved with CoA until about 2013, though neither of their professional backgrounds were heavily steeped in programming.


Clark had previously held a career in marketing and local government before his part-time volunteer involvement with CoA turned to a leading role with Citizen Labs.


Anderson, meanwhile, worked in IT. His responsibilities in network administration did not overlap much with the worlds of government or community engagement. He found that through working on mapping projects for CoA and joining Clark's initiative, he was able to revive an open data map that helped Grand Rapids residents understand the block-level impact that the parks millage of 2013 would have on their taxes.


"When I first came to my first Citizen Labs meeting, they were using something called Open Street Maps," Anderson says of the technology that first launched in 2004. "You start drawing these parks, and everybody's sitting around the table splitting up the work. 'Here, you do this list, I'll do this list.'”


Anderson’s career obligations took him away from mapping work for several months. When he eventually came back to the project, he found little progress had been made.


At Citizen Labs’ inception, Grand Rapids wasn't ranked very high in the U.S. City Open Data Census funded by the Open Knowledge Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation. It wasn't ranked at all.


It was clear there was work to be done. Fortunately, many of the projects Citizen Labs has taken interest in have already been tested in other cities.


"In most cases, all the code had been developed for or by other cities, Clark says. "We just kind of had to pick the right modules that we wanted to use, and all that code is already there."


Avoiding redundant effort makes the work around open data efficient, and these efficiencies translate into results.


Sloth I. left talks to Allen Clark during a Citizen Labs meet up.Commit


After Anderson's parks millage project was launched, the millage itself passed. With its expiration set in 2020, the interactive map is an important resource once again as voters decide if the property tax increase is worth saving the community, neighborhood, regional, or mini parks in the city that have fallen into disrepair.


"They needed a way to show voters where the money was going and how it was benefiting the community," Anderson says. "We got involved in mapping all the parks, gathering the expenditure information, and putting it into a map interface."


Using the tool, visitors can see what parks are nearest their home, neighborhood, or ward, what improvements have been made since the millage was first passed, and what improvements have yet to be completed.


The group's relationship with the city was further strengthened around a common affinity for open data between Clark, Anderson, and the rest of Citizen Labs, and the city's Director of Customer Experience and Business Intelligence, now Chief of Customer Service and Innovation Officer, Becky Jo Glover.


Becky Jo is a big supporter of open data," Clark says. "She came from Miami, and Code for America has a strong presence there. She had worked with them there and knew the kind of organization we were hoping to put together, and was able to plug us in to see the right people [and to] to get the right information for our projects.”


Citizen Labs has been helping the city define, communicate, and demonstrate its open data policy. Coincidentally, Grand Rapids now ranks 39th in the U.S. City Open Data Census, tied with Scottsdale, Ariz., and Nashville, Tenn. Meanwhile, the group has been developing a network of useful links to city websites that local residents can use, setting up a new platform for volunteer data scientists to collaborate with others on open data projects, and yet maintains the budget visualization chart that continues to win over the hearts and screens of those at City Hall. It's that last project that has garnered attention from neighboring Wyoming, where Citizen Labs is working on a similar dashboard for city leadership and residents.


Outside of city matters, the group is working with the Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds to support the Adopt-A-Drain project, which involves each of the more than 50,000 storm drains in the regional watershed. Residents can find another map on the LGROW website showing which drains are yet unadopted, and in need of an environmentally-conscious monitor to keep them free of leaves and debris, manage stormwater, and minimize flooding.


"We're launching it here in West Michigan with the Grand Valley Metro Council," Clark says. "Geographically, it's the largest development we've taken on using the mapping tool."


Perhaps one of Citizen Labs’ most expansive efforts to date has been increasing voter engagement throughout the state.


The Michigan Voter Information Center lists 7,538,082 registered voters in the state. In Grand Rapids, during the Nov. 6, 2018 election, there were 137,243. Only 53.61 percent of those registered in the city, 73,576 individuals, voted in the state general election. With one of the biggest barriers to voter turnout being the registration process, helping people understand whether or not they are registered is an important step in improving turnout on Election Day.


Jace Browning, left, talks to Steph Carter about a project they're working on. It's not that this sort of tool doesn't exist. There are many different websites, either nationally or locally based, that might help out a potential voter. But, along with a rather involved instruction set and several form fields to fill out and submit, you still might find yourself staring blankly at an "Internal server error."


In the words of the state of Michigan's voter registration tool, accessed through the city of Grand Rapids' website, "There is a problem with the resource you are looking for, and it cannot be displayed."


Citizen Labs has a much easier, perhaps even furrier, solution to the question. Mittens, the Citizen Lab, is the mascot for the group's voter registration app, and the one to ask if you are curious about your eligibility.


Mittens pops up on the Citizen Labs app and asks a few easy questions: what is your name? When were you born? And what is your address?


Answer them honestly, and Mittens fetches the response you've been looking for.


Under development


During the development of the Citizen Labs voter registration app, the group found similar efforts being undertaken by "many other organizations with more money and national visibility doing the same thing," Clark says.


They had already built a system that could directly access the voter registration data stored at the state level, but instead of duplicating the effort and developing further, Citizen Labs documented their API, a type of data stream that can be understood and interacted with by other apps.


"So, if a national organization wants to tap into the state of Michigan, there's an API that they can follow," Clark says. "Instead of us competing against big national organizations like Rock the Vote ... what we can do is offer this API that we've figured out."


The Citizen Labs team has also been in contact with Michigan Public Radio's Dustin Dwyer, collaborating on a potential project which, like the other open data driven projects, could further increase government transparency.




Since 2016, volunteer data scientists have helped Citizen Labs roll out public-facing tools that increase government and non-profit transparency, and make it easier for the average person to understand how the work those organizations do affects them.


The group also provides a benefit to its active members. The volunteers get to develop technical and valuable skill sets while working on Citizen Labs projects. It's experience that potential employers can appreciate, and a clear indicator of a self-starting work ethic.


"There are no bosses here and they can work on anything," Clark says. "But they can use this work to help them get a job. They now they have something they can point to and say, 'Hey, I did this.'"


Moreover, because each of those projects has been documented and open-sourced, even people and organizations who are not part of the Citizen Labs team can recreate the same results, or even improve on them, anywhere they like. And that’s a benefit that’s easy to understand.


Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].


Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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