The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 27, 2018

Three steps to leverage data and technology to help low-income residents

Many local organizations help people with limited resources achieve upward mobility and stability. Some of these groups, which span the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, possess untapped data and technology skills that could make a more significant impact if they were combined and deployed strategically.

The Civic Tech and Data Collaborative—guided by the Urban Institute’s National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP), Living Cities, and Code for America—brought together local government officials, civic technologists, and community data organizations across seven cities to explore harnessing data and technology to benefit low-income residents. The collaborative demonstrated three steps cities should take to successfully leverage data and technology to improve the lives of residents with limited economic resources.

1. Build intentional, lasting relationships across sectors.

Organizations working to improve communities often stay in their lane and don’t recognize data and technology as powerful tools. Champions for equity should expand their networks by mapping their civic tech and data ecosystem to uncover groups with common interests, create new connections, and identify gaps in knowledge. Potential collaborators include advocates, city and county government, tech volunteer groups, data experts, and community members.

Fostering meaningful relationships takes time but builds a foundation for groups to surface issues where data and technology can part of a solution and forge partnerships to pilot new approaches.

In Cleveland, Case Western Reserve University’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development fielded a survey of local data and tech organizations that led to new alliances, culminating in two successful years of Cleveland Data Days. These events comprise trainings, workshops, and inspirational speakers for an audience of diverse stakeholders to build community and broaden capacity for innovative data and tech collaboration.

2. Commit to shared core principles.

Setting forth common principles is the first step in activating organizations to join forces to improve their communities. Our cities had government, tech, and data groups that were dedicated to collaborating in new ways and designing tools explicitly to benefit low-income communities. Coordinated by the NNIP partner organization Rise, CivTech St. Louis convened an advisory group with players from diverse sectors to set priorities for their local collaborative. They adopted a vision to empower citizens with tools and data that lead to more effective government, a more engaged community, and a more equitable society.

This mission statement guided the development of YourSTLCourts.com, a website that enables residents to better navigate the local judicial system by looking up their own tickets and warrants. Responding to user input, the website includes a texting option to receive court information and provides information about court expectations and community service options.

3. Draw on strengths and assets from across sectors.

Mapping community resources provides a portrait of the collective skills and tools that communities can put to work. Through collaborations, different sectors help each other develop new skills and exchange ideas about fresh strategies. Additionally, collaboratives should make space for residents to engage early and consistently with the development of tools intended to benefit them. Bringing data and technology expertise into government services increases agencies’ capacity to communicate with and deliver services to residents.

In Boston, Metropolitan Area Planning Council (the NNIP partner) and the city’s Division of Youth Engagement and Employment came together to redesign key program elements for the city’s youth employment program, including the application interface, how youth are assigned jobs, and how the agency communicates with applicants. As a result, the number of youths hired increased 20 percent from 2016 to 2017. 

In Washington, DC, the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development and Urban–Greater DC, with decades of knowledge of affordable housing preservation, partnered with Code for DC, which contributed its ties to tech volunteers and experience with user-centered design. The creation of an affordable housing preservation decision tool offered a proof of concept for the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development for teaming up with volunteers and relying on open-source technology.

Our local collaboratives recognize that data and technology are not appropriate for solving every civic issue, and tools alone don’t overcome larger systemic and resource challenges. But investing in civic tech and data collaboration can cultivate a broader set of allies that care about the well-being of low-income residents and can support advocacy efforts to tackle policy issues.

Illustration by Jamie Jones/Getty Images.

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