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Data tells a compelling story

The jour­nal­ists behind The Boston Globe’s “68 Blocks” series, which takes an in-​​depth look at life in the city’s Bowdoin-​​Geneva neigh­bor­hood, knew they wanted hard data to play a key role in their work. But they didn’t want the series to read like a run­down of facts and fig­ures, according to Steve Wilmsen, enter­prise editor for the Globe’s Metro sec­tion. “We wanted it to seem like a story,” he said.

Wilmsen and a team of Globe jour­nal­ists behind the series served as the keynote speakers at this year’s Data Day, an event held on Northeastern’s campus Friday and orga­nized by the Mass­a­chu­setts Area Plan­ning Council, the Boston Indi­ca­tors Project, and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. Their panel dis­cus­sion on how data fig­ured into the ground­breaking series kicked off a day of events for pol­i­cy­makers, researchers, and advo­cates aimed at teaching them how data can help guide and inform better public policy.

“Get­ting these num­bers was taxing,” said Maria Cramer, a crime reporter at the Globe, describing a gru­eling process that went far beyond simply requesting public infor­ma­tion from local offi­cials and city agen­cies. “We had to make calls, we had to set up meet­ings. There is the assump­tion that this data is simply acces­sible through a few key­strokes, but it’s a lot more com­pli­cated than that.”

Globe jour­nal­ists spent more than a year tracking down data on the Bowdoin-​​Geneva neigh­bor­hood from city, policy, and edu­ca­tion offi­cials. That infor­ma­tion played a huge role in the series and is now being made avail­able to out­side researchers, said Chris Marstall, the Globe’s cre­ative tech­nol­o­gist. Ryan Cordell, an assis­tant pro­fessor of English at North­eastern, recently led a team of dig­ital human­i­ties scholars and stu­dents to the new Globe Lab to learn more about how that data, and other infor­ma­tion col­lected by the newspaper’s reporters, can live on in the higher edu­ca­tion realm.

Stephanie Pol­lack, one of the event’s orga­nizers and the asso­ciate director of research in the Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy, said Data Day is an impor­tant oppor­tu­nity to show­case the policy school’s com­mit­ment to con­tributing more than pure research.

“One thing that I think sep­a­rates our policy school from others is that we really engage in policy issues,” said Pol­lack, a leading expert on trans­porta­tion policy in Mass­a­chu­setts and across the nation. “We’re not just here to study policy. We’re here to make change.”

Fac­ulty mem­bers show­cased research at Data Day. During an after­noon panel dis­cus­sion, for example, Neenah Estrella-​​Luna, an assis­tant aca­d­emic spe­cialist in the Col­lege of Pro­fes­sional Studies, and doc­toral can­di­dates in the Law & Policy pro­gram dis­cussed how inter­views, doc­u­ments, and national data­bases could be used to address local and national policy issues.

Data plays a key role in public policy because it can be used to combat decision-​​makers who cherry-​​pick facts that best serve their own inter­ests, noted Marc Draisen, exec­u­tive director of the Mass­a­chu­setts Area Plan­ning Council. A strong com­mit­ment to sound data that is clearly pre­sented can help turn the tide against the par­ti­san­ship and dog­ma­tism that defines much of Amer­ican pol­i­tics today.

“Some­times we feel as if we are awash in data, but what we need to do is channel that data, put it together in an acces­sible form, and make sure people making deci­sions look at the num­bers,” Draisen said.

– By Matt Collette

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