Trenton’s schools (in powder blue) and nonprofits in various colors (Google Maps).

The term “big data” has recently become a staple of the 21st century lexicon. It’s been channeled by writers and leaders so often as an easy solution to certain problems; it seems there’s already burnout from its promises.

 

But big data is not a panacea by itself; it’s more creating a navigable path to better tackle certain problems. Ideally, it can be used by anyone: computer programmers, government officials, reporters or regular citizens. By using statistics, open-source data and other available information, we can paint better pictures of the world around us.

Visualization from the winning group at the 2013 Hack Jersey event (Hack Jersey)

I’ve seen it work under the right conditions. While at a 24-hourHack Jersey competitive event in 2013, the winning team revealed that Exits 130–140 were the most accident prone areas on the Garden State Parkway, which is somewhat unusual considering no commercial vehicles are allowed north of Exit 105. They even found that a majority of drivers were not out-of-staters, but New Jersey motorists themselves. It was all done with access to NJ state crash data that anyone can look at. But like most people you’d find at a Hack event, this group was tech-savvy and were able to graph a pattern that could be interpreted easily.

This is the hope for the era of big data: Concerned and dedicated citizens can uncover things that couldn’t easily be seen before and use it to help government and larger populations.


On a cold February Saturday last month, I attended a similiar event called, “Code for Trenton,” which is a new brigade of Code for America started by local teacher Nathan Suberi and Trenton-native Adam Porroni who connected via The Citizens Campaign. The attendees were a collection of civic-minded volunteers and public policy workers whose goal is to use technology to assist the capital city. After introductions and airing out ideas, we narrowed our concerns to two topics with the hope to produce something by dusk. Important questions that came up:

Civic-minded people in downtown Trenton — Feb. 2015 (Steve Chernoski)
  • There are many after-school programs in Trenton, but where are they all located? How can parents be given better access to this information?
  • How can we measure a special place? Where are the places people want to share?

The after-school challenge work was made easier by using a partially-built database by city resident Ray Ingram. We worked on mapping the listed after-school programs using CartoDB with a goal to finish it by next month while potentially expanding it to include summer and athletic programs. However, I was also intrigued over the questions about special places:

Where are the places people want to share publicly online and why are these places important?

 

Mr. Suberi, a Teach for America volunteer and a mathematics educator at Foundation Collegiate Academy Charter School, got us farther. Suberi knew what technologies his students were using and hinted that a majority are on Instagram. Porroni and policy worker, Adam Tecza, agreed they could probably use Instagram’s Application Programming Interface (API) to find recent check-ins around Trenton’s city limits. If a pattern could be found, (for example if 50 people in Trenton took public selfies at Cadwalader Park), a conclusion could be that the park is valued by Trentonians.

But there were hurdles. It was the middle of winter and snow began to fall halfway through out meeting. People don’t use public places as much in cold weather and we didn’t find a good amount of recently geotagged Instagram photos. Summer would be a better time to collect the information.


The scene after I left. There was little snow as we began the day (Steve Chernoski).

Using big data and associated technologies at the first “Code for Trenton”event allowed us to clear a path, but not yet travel its length.

For instance, if many of Trenton’s non-school aged population don’t have easy access to apps and the Internet, then not everyone can access the path. So how can tech-savvy problem solvers at hack events build bridges and make more connections to the broader community? If more Trentonians rely on word-of-mouth, physical posters, newspapers or speeches from the pulpit, then big data has to complement these mediums, or risk operating as stand-alone virtual white elephants.


To gather all of the up-to-date after-school program data, we decided making phone calls and physically visiting locations was still necessary. And on the special places question, well, spring is around the corner . . . but the old-fashioned way of canvassing sidewalks and attending downtown festivals or neighborhood events is still essential.

Using technology together with on-the-street community organizing can speed up our journeys and make paths more accessible. Maybe special places that once were hard to notice, will reveal themselves along the way.

Clearing the path (Steve Chernoski)

The next Code for Trenton event is this Saturday March 14th at from 10am — 12pm at Base Camp Trenton, 237 E Front St , Trenton, NJ 08611.

 

*This piece is part of Steve’s work as a City Storyteller with The Citizens Campaign