New Year’s resolution for nonprofits and organizations: use more data

by
The year 2014.

Photo: iStockPhoto.

While diet and exercise are typically on the top of any New Year’s to-do list, few people (never mind whole organizations) take the time to be resolute at work. Before you settle into your normal work habits, consider rejuvenating your work routine with some new tools and ways to use more data and help your organization be more open. Regardless of where you work, from issue advocacy or community organizations to research institutions or news outlets, using or more often times just knowing where to find data is immensely helpful in designing that project, conducting that analysis, making that dataviz, writing that blog post or just generally keeping you in the loop.

So here are ten mini opengov resolutions to help you expand your work horizons with a healthy diet of data and mental exercise using new or perhaps overlooked tools.

  1. Explore Sunlight’s free tools: From lobbying trackers to political ad purchases, Congressional speeches or regulatory data, we have a tool for you. Here are the top must-tries if you haven’t used them before:

    • Open States: With so many state legislatures back in session, you can use this tool to search for upcoming bills and votes on any issues across all 50 states (plus DC and Puerto Rico).

    • OpenCongress: Have a federal focus? OpenCongress provides real-time information for Congress, from member contacts (including Twitter handles) to bill look up, the tool can even generate head-to-head voting comparisons among representatives. Want to comment on a bill? OpenCongress will submit them directly to your member.

    • Influence Explorer: The upcoming 4th anniversary of Citizens United serves as a reminder for the exorbitant amount of cash that’s legally allowed to be pumped into our electoral process. Influence Explorer allows you to follow the money by searching for real-time campaign contributions and expenditures on the federal and state level.

  2. Make your datasets public: It can be as sophisticated as having it published as a Socrata table or available via API, or as low-tech as a Google doc or as simple as a spreadsheet (.csv or .xls) that’s downloadable alongside your fancy .pdf report. The more data that is available, the more we can learn from each other and build upon the work.

  3. Collect, aggregate, mashup or replicate a data project: If you don’t currently work with data, consider generating your own. In addition to government data portals, there’s interesting data all around us and these community indicator projects highlight some of those diverse datasets. Or consider adding a data layer to public information to help support your initiative. For example, in discussing ways to illustrate the value of a new public campaign finance matching program for local races, I suggested comparing the local data they have to federal and state contributions (data we have in Influence Explorer) to see if more people participated under the incentivized program.

  4. Turn numbers into something pretty: Let’s be honest, numbers by themselves can be pretty boring. Luckily, there are a number of free tools and software out there to help you “paint by numbers,” such as Google’s suite of tools like Google Maps or Google Docs to get you started. (Check out our tutorial on making data visualizations in Google Docs). For the more tech savvy, check out Mapbox or Plot.ly to name a couple. And for inspiration, check out our Dataviz Tumblr.

  5. Learn to code: Maybe it was your 2013 resolution (or maybe, like former Mayor Bloomberg, it was your 2012 resolution) and you never got around to it. There’s no time like today to add to your repertoire of skills like these students did. But I know we are all busy, so instead of planning for a failed 2014 resolution, how about (revised resolution) learn one new technical skill or application. It could be learning to make a pivot table or to use Fusion Tables to finagle that large dataset into a dataviz (see resolution #4). Or master basic command line to tell your computer who’s boss. These all make great building blocks to becoming more technical; at the minimum, they will improve communication between you and your tech consultants.

  6. FOIA something: In the world of “public” information, there’s a whole lot that’s public by request. We filed our first FOIA lawsuit last year and came out victorious. So don’t be shy and request some data — thankfully there are a number of free and public tools to help you, such as MuckRock, FOIA Machine and the Reporters Committee’s FOIA letter generator.

  7. Help with open data projects: Have some free time? Take a look at these different projects that have data needs. And don’t worry — there’s plenty to do that needs both technical and non-technical help.

  8. Create a Scout collection: While not everyone can hire a policy assistant in 2014, you can get awfully close by using Scout, Sunlight’s search and alert tool that covers Congressional legislation, speech, regulations, court opinions and state bills. By creating a collection, you can share your expertise by curating key terms, relevant bills and federal code to allow your colleagues and organization’s supporters to stay up to date on any issue or topic. Check out Electronic Frontier Foundation’s collection on NSA Spying, created in Scout.

  9. Consider mobile: Pew’s most recent survey in 2013 found that 64% of adult cell phone users use their phone to go online and, of those, 34% use it predominantly over computers. As your organization looks to revamp your site, consider responsive web design to ensure your content is being displayed properly — there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing a chart on a smartphone where you can’t make out the numbers. (Check out this great presentation on “What the heck is responsive design?”) Another way to enhance your online mobile presence is to develop mobile apps. Take Sunlight’s, for example: Sitegeist, Congress and Ad Hawk.

  10. Go to a hackathon (or a tech meet-up or a CfA brigade meet-up): There’s no better way to learn more about how to use data than to meet technologists, civic hackers, developers and opengov supporters in person. We are a friendly brood eager to brainstorm, provide assistance and get you connected. Look for upcoming events in our community calendar and keep your eyes peeled for the save the date to TransparencyCamp, our annual “unconference” coming soon.

These New Year’s resolutions will quickly transform any office from dataphobes to dataphiles in 2014.

Happy New Year!