6 Projects Harnessing Data To Do Good

There is now more data than we possibly know what to do with, but these organizations are using it to help keep people more informed and connected.

6 Projects Harnessing Data To Do Good
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The Internet, fast Wi-Fi, and ever-improving computer processors have made it easier than ever for corporations, non-profits, and cities to harness large amounts of data to do everything from predicting terrorist attacks to studying urban heat traps via car sensors. But big data isn’t limited to closed-off organizations; there are plenty of initiatives working to open up data tools to the public, including the six winners of the Knight News Challenge: Data.


The challenge, which gave a total of $2.22 million to the winners, awarded “ideas that make the large amounts of information produced each day available, understandable and actionable.” Here are the winners:


Safecast sprung up after the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, when a handful of citizens decided to set up radiation sensors in Japan and stream the data to the web–something the secretive Japanese government would never think of doing. We first wrote about Safecast this past May, when the organization was gearing to set up sensors to track air pollution and other contaminants. Now that it has Knight funding, Safecast is expanding from Tokyo to Los Angeles, where it will begin measuring and streaming data on air quality.


Gone are the days of collecting neighborhood surveys with pen and paper. LocalData, a project from three Code for America fellows, lets users collect data using a smartphone app and provides instant online visualization tools. Not comfortable using a smartphone? Pen and paper can scan and upload data to the LocalData website for access to the same tools. LocalData has already been used by the city of Detroit (in partnership with a graduate urban planning class at Wayne State University) to collect data on over 9,000 commercial buildings.

Open Elections

Do you know where to find comprehensive U.S. election data? It sounds like the kind of thing that should be easily accessible, but it isn’t. That’s why Open Elections is creating what it calls “the first free, comprehensive, standardized, linked set of election data for the United States, including federal and statewide offices.” Led by developers from the New York Times and the Washington Post, Open Elections will let anyone who’s interested (read: journalists) access information about campaign spending, legislative records, and all sorts of other data points.


You may have already heard of OpenStreetMap–the community mapping project powers maps used by Foursquare and Wikimedia, which means that millions of people use the tool. Funding from Knight will allow the project to build a series of new tools that make it easier for communities to add data (i.e. street names and building locations).


This project is designed to make it easier for journalists to access recent census data, without dealing with time-sucking chores like importing and managing the information. Knight funding will let the project, created by a senior developer from the Chicago Tribune and Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), make its tools easier to use and add in a data set for the annual American Community Survey, which examines how $400 billion of government money is doled out.

Pop Up Archive

This project, created by graduate students at the University of California along with SoundCloud Fellows, aims to make it easier for public media projects to upload and share all forms of media, including audio and video. The website explains: “At its core, Pop Up Archive addresses the challenge of enabling any producer to share digital audio content in ways that are meaningful and useful to the public, without the need to employ an archivist.” Media is uploaded to the Internet Archive for safekeeping, while audio can be shared for free via SoundCloud.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.