What is the goal of CityMatter?

Our cities are home to an increasing proportion of people. And as local media struggles, coverage and circulation are reduced. Fewer eyes covering city government, which has outsize influence on our daily lives, means citizens are less informed. And since an increasing proportion of residents are new to the area, neighbors seem increasingly to be strangers.

There’s good news, however. Information about our cities – from traffic, education, legislation all the way to new businesses and the pool of divorced people in your area – is available. It’s collected by local governments and in many, many cases is already being made available by forward-thinking public servants. Thing is, collecting and reviewing data from different local agencies is a fragmented and definitely not user-friendly process. So to date, there have been two main groups who dare dive in: enterprise service provider to the government, and brave, persistent journalists who wade through the siloed, and sometimes inconsistent repositories in their research.

We want to make data about our cities truly serve its residents. To liberate data and serve visualizations and interactive features that are useful to you. Construction warnings are provided, and government decisions given context – not spin. Voting records for your politicians, quickly viewed. And the media that’s trending in your city, served. In few words: we want to make data about our cities as useful to people as weather data, and as socially relevant as any other social medium. We want people to be in the know about crime, energy consumption [ and from which kind of source ] local economy indicators, and what’s going on in their neighborhoods.

And hey – maybe you’ll even go meet the people across the street, in the house with the green door.

If we want to have a more engaged citizenship, we must start with a public that knows what’s going on. Designing a way to deliver this information that is centered around the experience of everyday people is a great starting point.

What is this Beta stage about? When does it end?

Citymatter’s goal might sound ambitious but it’s all about taking small steps. Before we can start making daily reports of city data we must know how to make monthly reports, right?

This Beta is about what we call the “moderately-engaged citizen” dataset: checking what kind of information has been made available by local governments already, and can be collected without having to battle through paper-based bureaucracy.

Our goal for the Beta stage is fairly simple: collect data for nine categories, covering the 2000-2014 period, for 15 cities of the US. Each one of the categories has three indicators, so in total we are only looking at 27 datasets, as granular as possible, per city. Does it sounds feasible to you?

Lastly, this Beta is an experiment in motion. We are hoping to wrap it up by the end of 2015, but who knows? All the necessary information might be stored in a couple of federal data repositories. Or it might be so incredibly fragmented that its impossible to collect without visiting offices around the country. In all honesty, we wanted to a build user-friendly place to host the data, and then embark on the adventure of finding it; documenting the process along the way.

What cities are part of this Beta stage?

The ten largest cities in the US by population by 2014, plus five other state capitals and amazing cities. So:

01: New York, NY
02: Los Angeles, CA
03: Chicago, Illinois IL
04: Houston, TX
05: Philadelphia, PA
06: Phoenix, AZ
07: San Antonio, TX
08: San Diego, CA
09: Dallas, TX
10: San Jose, CA
+1: Austin, TX
+2: San Francisco, CA
+3: Denver, CO
+4: Washington, DC
+5: Boston, MA

What about the data? How are you planning to collect it and keep it updated?

We’ll be searching for data and contacting agencies, but given the project’s limited timeframe we are hoping that open gov / open data folks from each city will be interested in helping us build a useful tool. We are building a forum area for this website, which will not be under the “beta” sub-domain: if the project is successful and we move onto a launch stage we want to keep the forum as it is.

Regarding updating: each dataset or visualization will include the date in which the data was published, along with credits for everybody who helped us collect it, and a url that track back its original online location. After the Beta stage is completed we’ll publish a progress report for each city, including pass / fail grades for each one of the 27 indicators.

And how are you planning to process this data into something useful and user-friendly?

Great question! And sorry if we geek out here: We built this temporary set ofindicators after reviewing a myriad things such as: the recently-published ISO city standards, the (amazing) IDB emerging sustainable cities initiative, the UN / UN-Habitat millennium development goals, the Asian Development Bank urban indicators for managing cities, the (also amazing) Canadian International Development Agency sustainability indicators and case studies; and many more. At this moment we are researching on what are the most likely levels of granularity available for each dataset, along with a couple of other variables. But the reality is that we are not data scientists of any sort, but rather designers, journalists and cultural managers.

We know that the data is out there, and are not worried about being capable to feature engaging information and useful visualizations, but we do acknowledge that we need help making everything statistically sound, stuff like: deciding how and when to compare real dollars vs. nominal dollars, when to update the data based on population shifts, how to streamline data processing and avoid null problems, etc. And given this, we are not afraid of looking for help. Thankfully, that’s where Stanford University comes in.

Stanford University?

Yes! This project is being developed as part of a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University, for the 2014-2015 period. During this time we’ll have access to resources that will help Citymatter with its methodological goals and development process. Many thanks to the great team at the Knight Foundation for their support and feedback!

Sounds awesome! Do you have a progress report for the entire project that I can follow?

Yes, you can find a timeline of progress at our blog, directed by Michelle Benaim Steiner and powered by Timeline.js, an amazing open-source tool made possible the Knight Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. Hope it is useful!

What is the team working on this project?

At the moment of the launch of the Beta stage [ date ], the team is comprised of the following:

Lope Gutierrez Ruiz
Lope Gutierrez RuizEditorial
Lope Gutierrez-Ruiz: art director, editor and cultural manager with over a decade of experience in media and cultural production. He has been named recipient of a John S. Knight Fellowship, TED Fellowship and TED Senior Fellowship, NY Film Festival World Medal, Venezuelan National Book Award, Next City “40 Under 40” Urban Leader, as well as several grants. Contact: lope [ at ] citymatter.co
Michu Benaim Steiner
Michu Benaim SteinerStrategy
Michelle Benaim Steiner: has nearly a decade of experience in project management, marketing strategy, corporate communications, and brand consultancy. She is the content editor of Gopher Illustrated Magazine. A Consortium Fellow at the McCombs School of Business, and McCombs Social Enterprise Fund Fellow at the University of Texas; she has been named recipient of an Idea Fund (Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts) grant, a national prize at the Ibero-American Design Biennial, and is a member of the Longhorn Startup Lab in Austin, TX; among others. Contact: michu [ at ] citymatter.co
Mariana Santos
Mariana SantosDesign
Mariana Mouro Santos: UX / UI Mariana Santos is the Director of interactive and animation at Fusion, Miami; and is fully invested in helping to bring more women journalists into technology so they can have a stronger voice online. She says having the opportunity to spend this year at Stanford is not only a honor, but also carries responsibilities — to help other Latin American women learn the news ways of thinking and doing that she has gained during her fellowship. She has learned about high performance leadership and strategic communication at Stanford’s Graduate School Business and about how to design organizations with the user-centered approach taught at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the d.school).  She joined an improvisational theater class and learned how to use improv and design-thinking methods to spark creativity inside newsrooms.

I would like to support this project. What can I do?

Thank you very much, we really appreciate any help possible! We need several things to make this project work out into something useful for citizens all over the US. So, depending on your area of expertise, you can do any of the following four things:

01) You can help us collect data: maybe you know somebody who has a report or a spreadsheet from your city that can be useful? Or maybe you know where that data is available online or you are a public servant yourself? Please don’t hesitate to contact us or forward the data, it will be truly helpful and we will include credits and Twitter information about you if you are happy with it!

02) You can help us the code the shnizzle out of this: whether is helping make the visualizations more beautiful, doing back-end code for this WordPress site, or improving our cities’ database, any help will be greatly appreciated, and again, we’ll be happy to include credits about you! Also, you can invite us to a hackathon! There are so many parts of this project that can be fun to make while heavily caffeinated that we would love to share the joy with coders anywhere! CityMatter blog posts and social media madness will be part of the occasion of course.

03) You can introduce us to people: public servants, data scientists, coders, designers, journalists, event organizers, etc.; if you know somebody who might be interested in CityMatter please make an intro! Our e-mail address lope [ at ] citymatter.co .

04) You can support-support us: finally, if you would like to help us but don’t feel confortable in any of the previous areas, you can always go ahead and donate via the support button at the right. We still have to pay bills, host meetings, buy supplies and cover other many expenses, so we truly appreciate your donations.

How can I can contact you guys?

For the time being please send all e-mails to lope [at] citymatter.co. We would also recommend you to follow us on Twitter at @citymatter and @hello_lope, and contact us that way, as we usually reply much faster via Twitter.

Lastly, we are based in Palo Alto, CA but travel often to Austin, TX and New York, NY [ and for some reason, also Miami, FL, we spend waaaaay much more time than expected in that city ]. So if you feel like having coffee let us know and hopefully we can work something out!

Have a great day!