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Fear No Data!

The Lowdown on Accessibility and Transparency


By: Lou Buhl, Wayne State University Student Journalist

(From left to right) Moderator and Digital Executive Producer at WXYZ-TV Maxwell White, Data Driven Detroit
Executive Director Erica Raleigh, and Detroit Free Press computer-assisted Reporting Coordinator Kristi
Tanner at the Society of Professional Journalists’ FOIA Festival at Wayne State University on Oct. 12, 2019.
Source: Lou Buhl

Data works to provide people with a comprehensive understanding of the past by giving
the context needed in the present to make informed decisions about the future. Data Driven
Detroit and Detroit Free Press specialists tackled topics of data utility, challenges and resources
at the first Freedom of Information Act Festival at Wayne State University on Oct. 12.
Students, journalists, and citizens joined Data Driven Detroit Executive Director Erica Raleigh
and Detroit Free Press computer-assisted Reporting Coordinator Kristi Tanner for a discussion
on how to access and analyze data in the private, public and nonprofit sectors.

Raleigh said she was “so excited” to see how many people came out to discuss data during their
FOIA festival panel. “Usually people are terrified of that word, so this is really awesome!”

FOIA is described as “the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government,” by
providing the right to request information from any federal agency, according to FOIA.gov.

In regards to using FOIA requests to gain access to data information, Tanner suggested
journalists and citizens alike should ask first and “FOIA later.”

Tanner said Data Driven Detroit, also known as D3, is “a great resource,” for accessing data
relating to Detroit. “It’s nice to have other people who are nonpartisan, who are interested in
data, and who have resources.”

D3 was founded in 2008 as a nonprofit (originally called the Detroit-Area Community


Information System) with the help of start-up funding from The Skillman and Kresge
Foundations, according to its website, datadrivendetroit.org.

During the recession, foundations were having to make difficult decisions surrounding who to
fund and “who was going to die off in the nonprofit sector locally,” Raleigh said.

Raleigh said D3’s time spent as a nonprofit helped them “understand what the community needs
were around data,” as well as common requests and challenges people had with the system.

Before entering her role at D3, Raleigh said she studied how people could use data to do their
work more effectively. Through researching all the ways people generate data, Raleigh said she
understood how it could be utilized “to produce better outcomes” in the future.
By providing free public access to “processed datasets, maps, and visualizations and other tools,”
concerning Detroit, Raleigh said D3 also works at “improving accessibility and community
knowledge around data information analysis.”

In 2015, D3 transitioned from its nonprofit structure to “a standalone Low-Profit Limited


Liability Company (L3C),” which requires D3 to make decisions aligned with its mission
statement.

“Our mission is to provide accessible high-quality information and analysis to drive informed
decision-making. Our vision is that essential and unbiased information is used by all.”

“We are here as a resource,” Raleigh said


emphasizing the “Just AskD3” template on
the website. “Write us, call us, stop in!”

D3 also runs office hours on Tuesdays and


Thursdays from 1p.m. to 3p.m. out of
Co.act Detroit, a nonprofit support center
located at 6568 Woodward Ave.
Source: Data Driven Detroit

Registration for office hours is requested online, but Raleigh said walk-ins are also welcome.

“If you ever have data questions, you need a map, you want to talk something through, you want
to see if we have a file already processed—we’re around,” Raleigh said.

When working with numbers, figures and statistics at the Detroit Free Press, Tanner said she
“always” questions the data that is given to her and recommends double-checking others work.

“People get the wrong numbers all the time from the wrong places.” It’s easier to see if
something doesn’t add up, “when you have multiple eyes on things,” Tanner said
Like D3, Tanner’s career at the Detroit Free Press also began in 2008. Outside of her work as a
reporter, Tanner is an adjunct statistics professor at Wayne State University.

During the panel, Tanner discussed the longtime national data platform, American Fact Finder,
and its move to an updated system on data.census.gov. Census Bureau data about the nation’s
people and economy can be found for free using these resources. However, Tanner voiced
concerns related to accuracy and timeliness.

By examining the year and the location of data first, Tanner said she avoids wasting unnecessary
time on an analysis that may be outdated or misplaced.

Whether or not the pubic fully understands the importance of data quite yet, Raleigh will
continue to work toward making data about Detroit accessible and Tanner will continue to report
using data to aid in transparency.

(From left to right) Erica Raleigh and Kristi Tanner at the Society of Professional Journalists’ FOIA Festival at
Wayne State University on Oct. 12, 2019. Source: Kathy Johnson

For more information on Data Driven Detroit, visit datadrivendetroit.org.