WORDS BY HILLARY STARK, IMAGES BY PRECIOSA JOHNSON
Maybe you’ve overheard some very tech-y terms floating around in conversations while grabbing your morning coffee at West Oak, or your happy hour beverage at Harvest House. Not surprising, as TechMill, a Denton-based non-profit, holds their weekly meetings at both of these popular watering holes. Additionally, they encourage all whom are present to join in on the conversation. One of the most popular topics in our tech community pertains to "open source data," or information that is freely accessible. Denton just so happens to already be an open source city, meaning that all of the data collected by the city is available to anyone, but you need to be willing to dig deep enough to find it, which is often an unintended barrier for citizens who don’t have a tech-savvy background. Read on to see what kind of data we're digging into as we near Open Data Day.
So how do we propose to solve the data puzzle? Cue Kyle Taylor, co-founder of TechMill, Jesse Hamner, Director of Research for the UNT library, and Pat Smith, Executive Director of Serve Denton. These three gentlemen with a mission for improving our community through the use of data and under-utilized community resources, who sat down with us for an interview earlier this week. In fall 2015, these three go-getters, with the assistance of quite a few other enthusiastic citizens, were able to successfully garnish the attention of Bloomberg Philanthropies, in securing Denton’s spot as one of the 13 mid-sized cities to be named a ‘What Works City’, an open source community that was granted access to the foundation’s team of statistical wizards, with the goal of finding and solving real problems in our own backyard.
Kyle noted that the data that’s being used has always been available, but isn’t easily accessible or packaged in an aesthetically appealing format, which is one of the deliverable goals of being a "What Works City." The kickoff for analyzing this collection of data is March 5th, which also coincides as being Open Data Day, an international event where groups across the world will meet to try to solve problems via freely accessible information. The invitation is open for anyone interested, including programmers, data-crunchers, and enthusiastic citizens, to participate in this one-day event, hosted on the UNT campus, to take a look at our city’s data in order to find areas of community improvement. The end goal of this event is to build digital dashboards that will report on city metrics and initiatives, so that citizens are better informed and feel empowered, having a greater knowledge of the available resources, to better the lives of our residents.
Jesse also commented that many of the UNT faculty members plan to use these datasets within their courses, as students desire to have hands-on experience in problem solving while in the classroom, bridging the gap between academia, industry, and the community.
“How do we measure the health of our community, in terms of various different areas? Housing, food, basic services? We can only manage what we can measure. How do we know that our efforts are really going to make a difference if we don’t have some sort of track-able system by which we can compare ourselves over a period of time?”, commented Pat.
Where are the people located who most need our resources? The data previously collected has proved that some of the needs aren’t necessarily geographically where we thought they would be, specifically regarding Denton County’s food pantry resources. The data was able to show that the city wasn’t distributing as much food as the rest of the surrounding cities, and that it wasn’t an issue of not having enough food to give away, but instead an issue of logistics, or rather not getting the most nutritious food, which is often highly perishable, out to the people who need it most. The data was able to assist in providing a heat map to show the greatest areas of need, and then Serve Denton was able to create a shared refrigeration unit and mobile food pantry, that all non-profits in the Denton area can access. For example, just last weekend, these resources provided 28,000 pounds of fresh food to more than 1,000 people in less than a two-hour period; in partnership with DCTA, free transportation is available for people to come to these food posts each Saturday, who normally would have had a very difficult time logistically-accessing these resources.
Pat concluded our interview with the promising call to action that, “through the city of Denton having an open-source framework for information being accessible, we’re able to solve some of the very real, tangible needs of our community.”
Register now for the upcoming event and learn more about on-going open source efforts within Denton.