Why I’m making a data portal for the City of Milford

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A working version of the City of Milford data portal, which is not yet live.

In the City of Milford, where I work, 27 percent of the working families don’t earn enough to cover basic needs like housing, food and childcare, according to a report commissioned by United Way. Meanwhile, we have noticed an increase in panhandling — to the point that some residents have called for the city to ban the practice.

The ban did not take effect. Instead, one response was to promote donations to local charities, that would provide services. But this sparked a few logistical questions in my mind.

  • What kind of services are available to people?
  • How do people find services?
  • How can they get there?

So that’s what got me started on a map of Milford’s social services. With the help of social service providers, I’ve identified places where a person can find a meal, a food pantry, a clothes closet and more. The hope is that this map will help the providers and their clients find each other.

This project raised a larger question for me: Is there a disconnect between data and the people who need it? If not, what can be done?

Why finding data is crucial

I make maps for the City of Milford — or, officially, I’m a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Analyst. Most offices in the city usually need one type of map or another.

But since storms Irene and Sandy, one of the most common requests for maps is for grant applications — whether its half a million dollars for a sea wall or $80,000 for a home elevation. We collect data and make maps to answer why the project is needed, its impact on the environment or to study the geography around the proposed sites. Many departments also need grants that aren’t storm-related, and the city has initiated a departmental roundtable where different offices discuss projects they would like to do and share resources and information on how to apply for grants to fund these projects and programs.

Data is essential when proving to funders that your organization and the people you serve are worth it — and its important in showing that what you want to do is backed up with facts. Grant applications often ask for things like the number of students who receive free lunch or a list of services in areas of low to moderate income.

So I recently attended a workshop on finding data to include in applications, hosted by the Greater New Haven Community Grant Foundation. The workshop presented a number of excellent, high-quality data portals — like Data Haven, Connecticut Open Data, CTData.org and American FactFinder — which I often use.

Disconnect between the data and those who need it

But, during the workshop, I sensed a disconnect in the room. The questions revealed confusion about the differences between the data portals, confusion on how to keep track of which resource is good for what kind of data and how to use these datasets in a grant application. I realized that finding quality data often requires a different set of skills than those needed to implement a project or run a program. These are people who are extremely bright, talented and dedicated to public service, but are too overwhelmed to sift through websites looking for data. They are often intimidated by the amount of work it can take to write a grant application, much like the people I work with.

As I listened to the questions, I realized that the people who make data portals are people like me. Whether intentionally or not, these portals have been designed for people who are used to working with data. It came to me that Milford needs its own data portal — and it needed to be designed for people who aren’t used to data portals.

I once heard an expression about producing television shows that certainly applies to local government: “Good, fast or cheap — you only get to pick two.” My vision of the Milford data portal is that it will be simple, though that doesn’t mean it’s going to be done quickly! The same way that I made the social services map for people who need to find the services, the data portal is being made for a specific audience.

Making the Milford data portal
Step one of planning a data portal: Pen and paper.

Step one of planning a data portal: Pen and paper.

I began with pen and paper and started doodling. I clumped data that would go together, thinking of the data sources I knew. Then on the computer I outlined how I want the portal organized and started cataloging hyperlinks.

One key goal of the portal is to make repetitive tasks easier. Often a grant application will need some sort of narrative description of the community. In many online applications there are specific word or character counts which limit an applicant. An employee in the Community Development office is writing some canned descriptions of the city with predetermined character and word counts. So if an online application needs a 250 character paragraph or a 250 word paragraph, it will be possible to simply copy and paste.

So far, the biggest stumbling block has been learning how to write in HTML. Luckily I have a lot of smart friends who pointed me to resources like w3schools.com, a website that I have been using to teach myself HTML. Another friend suggested that I use Notepad++ to make the writing easier.

I started reading HTML tutorials. I’ve learned about headings and formatting. Then I learned about iFrames. I thought I liked iFrames at first, but soon realized they were annoying and got rid of them. I read about navigation and links and hyperlinking images. Every couple of days I open the folder, and bit by bit it’s coming together. My work flow includes one window open for w3schools, one window for the notepad and one window to check my page.

To keep myself from being carried away by adding levels of complexity, I often stop and think of my grandma, who is always bustling around helping people — bringing this person a meal, volunteering at her church — and I imagine her trying to use the portal. My grandmother is brilliant, but not too internet savvy!

When it all finally comes together, I hope that the portal will break down some of the barriers to writing a grant application. I hope that the end result will be that the many people in Milford who have so much to offer can find a way to get the resources to turn their visions into action.

What do you think?

  • Meghan,
    Great article! The CT Data Collaborative would love to help with your endeavor. One of the concerns we share is exactly what you’ve stated …data portals are for data users not necessarily the general public. Through our website we’ve tried to help bridge the gap and not just provide raw data but make it accessible to a larger audience and for those who don’t have the time to dig through spreadsheets with hundreds of rows of data. We re-launched our website in November and are using an open source platform, CKAN, that I think can help the city of Milford! I’ll be in touch, Michelle Riordan-Nold, Director of the CT Data Collaborative