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Published on April 19th, 2013 | by EJC

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LocalData: Empowering Communities And Legitimising Citizen-Based Datasets

This article was written by Moran Barkai , and originally published on 22 February, 2013 at Data Driven Journalism. Republished with permission. 

Amplify Labs is a small start-up of three: Matt Hampel, Alicia Rouault, and Prashant Singh, striving to change the way data is used in the urban context. Their aim is to empower organisations and small communities to play an active part in improving life in their localities by documenting conditions on the ground. For this, they developed LocalData, an easy to use, browser-based tool for collecting local data. Amplify Labs are launching their product solely in the United States at the moment, partly for technological restraints, but they do not rule out crossing American borders in the future.

Efficiency through technology
The trio of Amplify Labs were inspired to develop LocalData through their work with Code for America in Detroit, where they witnessed the difficulties that communities, activist organisations, and different city governing bodies were facing when collecting data about their urban environment. The data they collected varied widely, both in content and ambition, from identifying abandoned lots to prospecting for commercial quarters. But in all cases, they wasted great amounts of time and energy using pen and paper to write down information, which then needed to be transcribed and translated into datasets, and ultimately given digital form. LocalData wants to simplify this process, by making the whole data collecting process digital from the onset. As Alicia Rouault puts it, “For us, this was really a question of efficiency, which we thought we could solve through technology.”

The tool is still in its pilot phase, with the developing team going back and forth between the needs of the beta-version users and the features of the tool. But Rouault believes it will become publicly available in April.

Using LocalData

A browser-based, easy to use tool for collecting data
Similar data collection tools already exist, but they are both proprietary and complex, requiring expert knowledge to operate them. Amplify Labs thus wanted to provide a tool that is as easy to use as any regular website. LocalData is a browser-based tool. Through the browser, the data collecting organisation can define and customise a survey questionnaire, according to its needs. This questionnaire can then be sent to any mobile device, such as a tablet or a Smartphone, used by the data collectors on the ground. The browser also opens a map interface, on which information is superposed. The data collected can be text or numeric. Photos cannot yet be recorded, but Rouault says the team is working on adding this feature. LocalData also supports paper-based data collection, for those who don’t own a mobile device. It offers a paper form with optical recognition marks and a geo-coded QR that can be scanned and automatically added to the data collected digitally. All the data collected is geo-coded directly into an online database, which means it is visible on the browser’s map in real-time, as it is coming in. It can then be exported in multiple formats: shapefile, Google Earth file, a KML, a CSV file, or for developers – as a GeoJSON file. All three organisations that have so far tested the beta version of the tool have expressed satisfaction. As Rouault proudly states, “Across the board, people are saying LocalData is extremely valuable and simple to use”.

The interface as it appears on Smartphones

Data collection as a citizen right
Local governments are already collecting data about urban environments. Why then, create a tool destined also for citizen initiatives or communities?

For Rouault, this is necessary, first and foremost, because governments are not necessarily capable of fulfilling this task themselves. Underfunded cities, like Detroit, often base their decision making on dated, inaccurate data.

But beyond that, Rouault sees this as an important statement about citizen involvement in the data collection process: “There’s also a case to be made for legitimising citizen-based datasets instead of just administrative ones, both because citizens might be interested in information that is very different from the data government cares about, information that is nonetheless important, and because the people living in these communities might actually know more than the county government.”

Screenshot of the interface

The Journalist and the City
Rouault believes that by making the processing of data faster and perhaps more easily accessible, approaching journalists with local, data-based stories could become easier for communities. The team at Amplify Labs hopes the data collected through the tool will eventually be made public, allowing outside parties, including media organisations, to get an aggregate of information about social, economic, and political issues tied to the places where people live, by mashing up data encapsulating these issues with urban maps.

“The idea of these public datasets arises from the assumption that the consumption of such data can be valuable for communities and media organisations”, says Rouault.

The team at Amplify Labs is currently refining the tool and ensuring it answers users’ needs and expectations. They are also creating more advanced data visualisation and analysis options, such as acquiring the possibility to turn layers on and off, or see data across time.

Hampel, Rouault, and Singh are also coming to terms with the unexpected interest expressed by diverse groups that are, on the face of it, far from the urban concerns that have originally motivated them to build LocalData. Rouault is pleased by this unforeseen hype, but admits this would require LocalData to adapt: “We’ve been approached by many different groups that want to use local data, which is fantastic. We’ve designed it from an urban planning perspective, but we’ve gotten interest from people in health departments who want to collect public health data; from art organisations that want to document public art in the city. Our test now would be figuring out for whom the tool is best adapted and how we refine it to meet their needs.”

Considering the versatility and adaptability of the tool, journalists could be another group Amplify Labs might need to consider.

About the Author:

Moran Barkai is an Israeli journalist. She has worked for publications such as Haaretz, the Huffington Post, Time Out, Your Middle East, and the European Journalism Centre’s Web-magazine. Follow her on Twitter

Photo: LocalData

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