The City of San Francisco has released “public life” data with a powerful, interactive online exhibit— empowering the public to measure and design for more inclusive urban life. Since 2007, The San Francisco Planning Department has led over a dozen studies of commercial corridors, parks, plazas and other public spaces and has recently adopted the open-source, Public Life Data Protocol to facilitate future studies. Observing how, when, and who uses public space puts people and their lived experiences at the center of informing the design and management of the public realm. While public life studies have been shared online as PDF reports, until now, the data that powers them has been mostly stuck in city-hall servers — available internally to data analysts and policy makers, but less accessible to non-technical city staff as well as the general public.
“City governments collect a lot of data, but we don’t always have effective tools for sharing human impact stories with our data. We could analyze data and create policy, but only those with a technical background could understand what this data is and what it means. Now, SF Planning has a great way of visualizing the data stories about our public spaces with a broader audience.” — Robin Abad Ocubillo, Placemaking Policy Lead, SF Planning
To transform this data into an accessible, public good, SF Planning partnered with Stae, a civic data platform that integrates a city’s various data sources and makes this data easy to visualize, analyze, and share. After transforming the City’s public life data into a digital format ready for analysis, Stae worked with the human-centered design research firm, Openbox, to build interactive “data stories” that use both quantitative and qualitative insights.
“Publishing open data is a terrific step for cities to take to make their projects and programs more participatory and accountable; but data alone, devoid of human context, often isn’t as meaningful as we might imagine. If we want the public to engage, we need to make the data engaging. I applaud SF Planning and the team at Openbox for bringing a human-centered narrative to the way in which new information about the parklets program is being shared online for the first time.” — Stephen Larrick, City Success Lead at Stae
The stories focus on better understanding “parklets” — small parks that repurpose parking spaces to provide amenities — like seating, planting, bicycle parking, and art — to the public. Combining high-level, quantitative data analysis with street-level, qualitative observations yielded more systematic and nuanced insights for how parklets could be truly equitable and inclusive. While data experts at Stae digitized the City’s existing public life data and integrated civic sources like affordable housing locations and new business licenses onto the map and into the story narrative, design-researchers from Openbox spent one week exploring and documenting a cross-section of the 59 parklets that represented key aspects of the diversity and inclusion SF Planning sought to encourage — from geographic diversity to programmatic to demographic. The research team conducted both in-depth interviews with the sponsors of each of these six parklets, while also collecting feedback from the spectrum of parklet stakeholders — from parklet users to people experiencing homelessness to small-business owners nearby.
“Data itself needs to be designed. There’s so much data that people need to know what they can do with it and how it can help them. As human-centered designers, we need to design the data experience so that anyone can easily access and interpret their city’s data to answer a question or provide evidence for an idea they want to advocate for.“ — Jamie Munger, Design Director at Openbox
Although investing in this type of comprehensive research can be seen as a “nice-to-have,” data and measurement are absolutely critical in order to evaluate the efficacy of publicly-funded projects and identify ways to optimize or iterate to better serve people and communities over time. This approach to measuring public life is scalable and flexible, and can provide anyone — from community organizations to city departments — with a way of understanding what’s happening in their city from multiple perspectives and scales. You can read the full data story here and view all data sources here.
Learn more about creating an open data portal and data-driven stories for your city.
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Stae helps cities make sense of their civic data. Cities across the U.S. use Stae to manage and share civic data in real-time and ingest data directly from proprietary sources, such as mobility providers and streetlight sensors. Currently, Stae helps cities manage more than 50 data types — like 311, 911, and traffic data — and emergent ones — such as the Public Life Data Protocol (PLDP) and Mobility Data Specification (MDS). Stae empowers non-technical users with the tools to explore their data and provides technical teams with the tools to manage and publish APIs at scale.
Openbox is a design studio that works at the intersection of people and systems. Openbox makes products and services better for the people who use them, and helps companies scale from a human-centered perspective. While the average Openbox project is one-third research, one-third prototyping, and one-third refinement, all Openbox project phases are design-led and inspired by people.