Storytelling Data Science
An Interview with Jason Jones, Analytics & Innovation Manager for Guilford County, North Carolina
At Stae, we work with cities wherever they are in their journey to becoming more data-driven. In some cases, this means providing a real-time data platform to regulate micro-mobility and incorporate IoT applications. And other times, we start by helping local governments understand and communicate the value of their data through storytelling.
When Jason Jones, Analytics & Innovation Manager for Guilford County, applied to join Stae’s Civic Sandbox Program, he needed support making an inventory of non-profit organizations generating community data (e.g. public health services, educational scholarships, and animal rescue operations) and a plan to make that data more integrated and accessible. The project team at Stae encouraged Jason to take a step back and think about what community means, how trust and sharing practices are built, and how to communicate the value of collaboration before jumping into identifying and gathering data. We spent the past three months iterating, gathering feedback, and finally designing a few design artifacts that support Jason to better understand and share the value of his work in ways that engage both his colleagues in the County and the larger community. Here, we chat with Jason about his role and what he gained from being part of a collaborative design thinking process.
Q: How do you explain your job to non-technical people?
JJ: I have a four-year-old son, and he asks me all the time what I do. I tell him that I help people solve problems and answer questions. Then he asks, what kinds of problems and questions. So I tell him: questions about pets in trouble and how to route emergency services. I help people understand where calls for help are coming from, how long it’s taking them to get help, and in general, find ways that this information can improve all services across Guilford County. In essence, I help people do their jobs better, with better information. My job is new in the County and in general, it’s a new kind of role in government. People don’t always understand what I do, and this means that they don’t always know they can come to me for help.
Q: What is distinct about working at the county level?
JJ: Working for a county rather than a town or a city is different. We help the most vulnerable populations in Guilford. We’re focused on quality of life, social services, and health. At the same time, we also operate the most hated functions, like taxes and inspections. People don’t like stuff that makes them jump through hoops.
Q: Can you share a couple of examples of how data has helped deliver better services in Guilford?
JJ: Jorge Ortega runs Animal Services for Guilford. His job is to protect and care for animals and offer support to pet owners. Jorge came to me because he needed numbers. Specifically, he needed to know where in the County service calls were made and the types of requests. I helped him in two ways. First, I pulled data from Metro 911 — they keep a record of all the phone calls made in the County asking for government assistance. I made a heatmap of where animal-related calls originated and what kinds of issues are being reported. Immediately, this helped Jorge and his team proactively locate their pop-up clinics, stock the right supplies, and apply for more funding for their work. I also helped design a simple mobile app that Animal Services staff can use to input their own data on stray animals they encounter in the field.
Another way I help improve County services is by partnering with universities and other institutions doing community research. Recently, I helped students at the University of Pennsylvania design a tool to predict who needs the most support integrating back into society after leaving the prison system. Predictive tools of this kind have gotten a lot critical feedback for not being transparent and sometimes racially biased. So in our case, we worked to provide anonymized, historical data and advised the team through rigorous testing to ensure their algorithm did not unfairly weight race, sex, or other demographic factors. As you can see, my job starts with a community need — most often, a need to use data to better direct and stretch the limited resources we have in the County to benefit the most people.
Q: Tell us about what you gained by participating in the Civic Sandbox program?
JJ: There was a lot gained, but maybe most notably was the new direction from my original idea. The team at Stae really took the time to engage with a lot of people around Guilford. They saw an opportunity to clarify my role and tell a really great story and they responsibly acted on that. I think we are in a much better position now to do what we wanted to do in the first place. It’s funny how that works sometimes!
Q: What in particular did you find most interesting or valuable about our collaboration?
JJ: I’ve really enjoyed learning from the team’s approach to storytelling and background research to provide real-world analogues that guided our path forward. A lot of our work is intensely people-focused, which can get lost in the rush to complete something or the flash of technology. I think Stae did a fantastic job of maintaining a balance.
Q: Were there any moments in the process where you felt skeptical or unsure that applying design to your challenges would work out?
JJ: Not really. I would love to have a story of skepticism to tell, but I’ve had my ticket punched on the design train for a while now. It always feels a little messy and wrong because it just isn’t what we’re used to. You must be ready (and willing) to learn from something that didn’t go as planned, and you must be comfortable with the idea that your perspective will be enhanced by the contributions of others.
Q: What kinds of feedback did you get from colleagues about what could be seen as an unconventional or experimental approach to government work?
JJ: People were thrown off by it because it isn’t something we normally or naturally do, but ultimately, they really liked it. I really enjoyed the feedback I got from my colleagues when I shared the work because it showed that people were engaging with it. The idea of creating a storytelling template also really appealed to some of our people that don’t feel like they have time to devote to that or they just aren’t sure where to get started.
Q: What’s next for you in your journey of sharing what you do with the community?
JJ: Hopefully, we will be able to continue to develop more stories and follow through on our idea to engage with people in a pop-up fashion. I think the reactions to that will be interesting and a great learning opportunity. Just trying to explain our work together to a couple of people has already demonstrated to me how thought-provoking combining data and design can be.
Learn more about how Stae can help you can use data to empower your community.