Mapping the communities of tomorrow requires a hard look at the topographies of today. Mike Carnathan, project director at Neighborhood Nexus, synthesizes big data into visual stories that chart the social, political, and economic conditions across the city of Atlanta. Part data miner, part cultural cartographer, Carnathan creates demographic maps that local leaders, advocates, and everyday citizens use to help understand and change their lives.
As a former journalist and publicity pro, Carnathan has always been fascinated by the power of storytelling. To him, numbers provide a quantifiable springboard to explore trends, behavior, and patterns. Through Neighborhood Nexus, an arm of the Atlanta Regional Commission, he pulls thousands of numbers from sources including the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Georgia’s Department of Education, and Department of Health. Using roughly 6,000 different data variables per map, he plots points across the city that reveal instances of anything from violent crimes, to disability rates, to households that have vehicles.
We spoke with Carnathan about his work, the potential and limitations of data, and how data is playing a key role in the exploration of inequality and equity in Atlanta.
Meet Mike Carnathan and John Keltz, director of research and evaluation, Atlanta Public Schools, at our Atlanta campus on Tuesday, February 28, during our exclusive event, “Designing Your Atlanta: What Does the Data Say?”
How are you using data to paint a picture of Atlanta’s social landscape?
Our main goal is to create a data-driven, decision-making culture here in the Atlanta region. Neighborhood Nexus is our region’s community intelligence system. It’s very similar to business intelligence, which has always just been a fancy word for using data to make better decisions like improve profits and the bottom line. In the community context, you use data to make better decisions in strategic planning, site location, and policies. We have literally thousands and thousands of different variables across a wide spectrum of issues including demographics, socioeconomics, housing, poverty, and education. We have lots of tools like to visualize that data, too.
Is there a data set that you find is currently most in demand?
Right now, the big focus here in Atlanta is this notion of income inequality and equity. There have been recent national reports — and we’ve been reporting this locally for years too — showing that the city of Atlanta has some of the highest levels of income inequality in the nation.
Atlanta is also going through a very high-profile “what-do-we want-to-be-when-we-grow-up” planning process. Housing affordability is really playing into that. It’s like, OK, if we really want to be a city of a 1.5 million people, what are some of the things we’re going to have to address in terms of equality? Income inequality is one of those things. Housing affordability is one of those things. You can’t build a city that is only affordable to a few and expect to grow to 1.5 million people.
Who uses your data?
There’s a wide spectrum of decision-makers at the local government level: elected leaders, the administration, and the citizens who put pressure on local elected officials to make a certain decision. We curate the data to help them all process it and tell their stories.
We are interested in the gestalt, the whole community system, because we know that education is related to poverty, poverty affects housing outcomes, housing outcomes affect where you live, which affects your transportation access, and so forth. All of this data is to tell a story about the human condition.
How do you actually find a story in the mountains of numbers you get?
Data by itself, without context, is pretty worthless. You can stare at numbers all you want, but you still have to have some sort of process to turn that data into information. We do that by processing the data in a way that we can view the data spatially to see how the data differs by neighborhood.
Our first goal is always: Can this data be turned into a map? If not, we make charts out of it, or visualize the data in some other way. Whether that’s basic charts in Excel or a Tableau interactive dashboard depends on the client’s needs.
Once you’ve visualized the data and you’re able to start seeing patterns, the beginnings of a story, you have turn that information into an actionable thing that somebody can run with, like a presentation, a blog, or even a phone conversation.
Are there practical considerations on how to make a map tell a story better? Like using colors or shapes in a certain way?
We probably play fast and loose with the science behind map-making. The visualization tool we use is called Weave. It’s an advanced mapping site where you can very quickly isolate the highest and the lowest values of a particular condition and quickly spot spatial patterns. And in the Atlanta region, there is a very distinct spatial pattern. Generally, the better socioeconomic conditions are in the northern stretches of the region, and the more challenging socioeconomic conditions are in the southern part. As long as the map can quickly show that, we count it as a success.
How do people use your data maps to move the needle on issues?
It’s never going to be, “Oh, we provided some data, then they made this policy, and then the world changed.” It’s never like that, though I wish it were. Instead, it’s more like getting the conversation started in a progressive way. We help get people on the same page as to what the challenges are so they can then begin to problem-solve. It’s really driving the conversation that’s then driving cooperation and collaboration among groups like healthcare, education, and housing.
How should people approach using data to affect things that matter to them in their communities?
That’s a good question because it’s a hard question. Form a hypothesis. Use data to support the hypothesis. Then realize that data in and of itself is not going to provide you the final answer. It can narrow your focus down to a neighborhood or a group of neighborhoods, it can narrow your focus down to one or two broader issues, but the real work is still boots on the ground. You’re going to have to work with other people. You’re going to have to get collaboration and lots of people working together on the ground. And the data can’t solve these problems.
What are the limitations of data?
I tell everyone that there is no such thing as perfect data. Until we get microchips in every person’s brain, we’re not going to have perfect data. Data helps narrow the range of outcomes. It helps focus your attention on a few things. Since no data is perfect, it’s important to have a lot of it. If you throw a bunch of imperfect data into a system like a Neighborhood Nexus or a map, and the maps keep showing the same pattern over and over and over again, you can be a lot more confident that those data are at least pointing us in the right direction.
You have to continually augment and find new data that adds another chapter to your story. As long as it makes sense and is pointing in the right direction, you can begin to feel confident that the story you’re telling is an accurate one.
Ready to leverage data to tell stories and advocate for change? Take General Assembly’s full-time Data Science Immersive course, discover our part-time campus options, or skill up with a mentor on a flexible schedule with our Data Analysis Circuit.