Creating Data Solutions for Brandeis to Drive Public Policy
Data visualization has been a part of Velir’s DNA since the mid-2000s. In fact, Velir actually created its own proprietary data-driven CMS at one point called, “Data Center.” Since then, Velir has been exploring data beyond the CMS, with a focus on how to integrate with other systems that not only present data but allow content authors to tell a story with it. A prime example of this exploration is our recent project, diversitydatakids.org, that we built in collaboration with the Institute of Child, Youth and Family Policy at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management.
The Velir team, consisting of designers, UX engineers, programmers, and project managers, partnered with a team from Brandeis on this remarkable project that leverages rich data integrations and Drupal 8 as the core CMS. We were honored to work with a wonderful and prestigious team of faculty members, scientists, and researchers from Brandeis who, throughout the project, demonstrated their passion for the health and well-being of children, as well as their strong command of data storytelling as a method to expose inequalities within different populations.
We discussed the project with Dolores Acevedo-Garcia from the Brandeis team. Acevedo-Garcia is a Samuel F. and Rose B. Gingold Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, and Director of the Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. She is also the Project Director for diversitydatakids.org. The following conversations happened roughly six months after the public launch of the website. In our chat, we took a closer look at the diversitydatakids.org mission, methods, and practices around data and data storytelling, the technologies powering the platform, and what lies ahead for diversitydatakids.org.
Barron Wernick: Can you briefly describe the mission of the diversitydatakids.org project, and what role the website plays to help fulfill that mission?
Dolores Acevedo-Garcia: We believe all children deserve the opportunity to thrive. We also believe that when opportunities are shared equitably, everyone benefits. For children, opportunity includes the conditions and resources they need to grow up healthy and learn. This includes the resources available to their families, in the schools they attend, and in the neighborhoods where they live.
In the U.S., many children live in families with economic and other resources to support them. They attend good early childhood education programs and schools and live in neighborhoods that provide access to healthy food, parks and playgrounds, clean air, safe housing, and good jobs for the adults in their lives.
But many U.S. children lack these conditions. Hispanic and black children are more likely to have lower opportunities for healthy development; they live in families and neighborhoods with much higher poverty rates and attend schools with more limited resources than white children. This inequity affects not only children but all of us.
Our website diversitydatakids.org is a research project that examines who our children are, whether they have what they need to grow up healthy and achieve their full potential, whether social policies are well designed to improve their lives and how to make them better to improve equity.
The website is essential to our work. It allows us to showcase our research, share our data with users, and advance the conversation about equity and child opportunity in the U.S.
BW: The diversitydatakids.org website is built on Drupal 8, with a CKAN integration for data organization and storage, along with an embed feature that allows you to drop in Tableau and other data visualizations. It’s a flexible system, allowing for impactful data visualizations to be interwoven with the narrative. However, as the design and implementation partner, we don’t get to see much of the process of collecting and crafting the data visualizations that we see on site. Could you tell us a little more about that process?
DAG: Compelling data visualizations can tell a clear story that complements the accompanying narrative. But a lot of work goes into crafting impactful visualizations, work that is hardly automatic, and changes from dataset to dataset and story to story. The first step for us is to mine the data and find the story. The next step is finding the right visualization so that the story immediately reveals itself to the observer. We frequently work with common types of plots: line charts, bar graphs, scatter plots, and, of course, maps. Many people are familiar with these formats, which makes them easy to decipher. But the real work lies in adjusting all the graphical parameters so that the resulting plot is just right for a given set of data points.
BW: It has been about six months since the public launch of the newly designed diversitydatakids.org website. How has the feedback been? Are there any measurable impacts on your mission that you can share?
DAG: The response has been tremendous. In the first six weeks after the launch, the new website received nearly three times as many page views as our old site received in a year. The website is critical to our dissemination and outreach efforts, and we’ve had incredible support from our funders, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the William W.K. Kellogg Foundation, both to develop the website and to mount a media campaign around the launch. The new website allows us to share our work easily both with researchers, who may be looking for the raw data and with members of the public, who may have seen a media story about our findings and want to learn more about what child opportunity looks like in their community.
"Despite the darkness of the current moment, we are optimistic that the U.S. will emerge from this period with a renewed commitment to ensuring that all children and their families have the conditions they need to thrive."— Dolores Acevedo-Garcia
BW: Looking ahead into 2020 and beyond, what do you envision next for diversitydatakids.org?
DAG: The COVID-19 pandemic and the disproportionate impact the disease is having on black and Hispanic communities and on low-wage essential workers, has brought much-needed attention to issues of equity in the U.S. that we’ve been working on for decades. We hope that the new awareness of the stark inequities that exist in our communities will create opportunities for sustained focus on change. Our Child Opportunity Index, and all the research on our website, can be instrumental in creating that change. Despite the darkness of the current moment, we are optimistic that the U.S. will emerge from this period with a renewed commitment to ensuring that all children and their families have the conditions they need to thrive. We plan to continue expanding and improving diversitydatakids.org so it can serve as a resource for everyone working to increase equity, from policymakers to funders to community advocates.
While Velir’s project with the diversitydatakids.org team may be winding down and has since moved from a full-service project workstream and into our support and maintenance program, the drive to resolve the inequalities between children is stronger than ever. It’s also apparent that although technologies such as Drupal, CKAN, Tableau, and other tools are important in building out a data-driven narrative, critical work is happening behind the scenes through a team of dedicated and passionate scientists and researchers with decades of experience. Lastly, Velir would like to thank Dolores Acevedo-Garcia, Nomi Sofer, Clemens Noelke, and Nick Huntington for inviting us to work on this project and for their continued dedication to the well-being of children in the U.S.
If you would like to learn more about the diversitydatakids.org project, visit their website or follow their team on Twitter. You can also use their contact us form to ask specific questions or get in touch with their team. Feel free to reach out to me, Barron Wernick, if you are interested in discussing a data-driven or CMS-driven website project: [email protected].