As an advocate for New York City tenants living without heat in their apartments, Noelle Francois is especially reliant on data to help her battle unscrupulous landlords. After all, she points out, “you can’t just take a photo that shows you have no heat.”
For tenant advocates like Francois, making sense of all the information, including heat-related complaints and prior violations by landlords, hasn’t been easy. The data the City makes available through its open portal isn’t always timely, uniformly formatted, or linked in ways that would make for easy analysis.
“My background is not in tech, so I definitely sit on the side of knowing I have questions I want answered and not quite knowing how to answer them,” says Francois, who is also the co-founder and executive director of Heat Seek, a New York City-based nonprofit.
In 2017, Francois discovered she wasn’t alone. In talking with peers at other housing nonprofits, she learned they were all experiencing similar pain points when working with the City’s administrative data. They started to meet monthly after work to brainstorm solutions. As word of their gatherings spread, more housing justice advocates showed up. Within six months, the group had grown from half a dozen to 20 people. A Slack chat for problem-solving data questions in real time grew to 50 members.
“We were surprised by how much interest there was,” says Georges Clement, one of the group’s original members and the co-founder of JustFix.nyc, a nonprofit that designs and builds free tools to aid tenants. “The community of people looking at the same data from a tenant advocacy perspective ended up being much broader than we had anticipated. We realized there was a lot of redundancy in our respective work with data that was totally unnecessary.”
Today, with the help of a Digital Impact grant, what started as informal get-togethers has morphed into the Housing Data Coalition. The all-volunteer coalition is on a mission to make public data more accessible and easy to use for anyone who is engaged in housing justice issues, including tenant organizers, community members, researchers, and lawyers.
At the heart of the coalition’s work is a single database called NYCdb. The database links to housing-related statistics covering some 900,000 buildings and includes complaints to the City’s 311 hotline, a history of landlord code violations, and records on property ownership. The database is available to coalition members, who can use it to help their own constituents.
“The amount of capability this database has enabled is unbelievable,” says Sam Raby, a coalition member and an engineer at JustFix.nyc. Using NYCdb, Raby was able to field a tenant organizer’s request in 20 minutes—a task that previously would have taken a day to process—saving time, a vital resource for the small nonprofit.
Seeking Impact, Not Vanity
It was the summer of 2018 when Clement suggested that the ad hoc group, given its rapid growth, needed structure—and outside funding to provide it. “We had formed organically, but now we were starting to think about how to formalize what we were doing in light of the interest we had seen,” says Clement. “Were we a coalition? A consortium? A community? What kind of governance structure would we need?”
Clement then proposed that JustFix.nyc, as an incorporated entity able to accept funds, apply for a Digital Impact grant on the group’s behalf. From 2016 to 2018, Digital Impact, an initiative of the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford PACS, has awarded annual grants to research teams and nonprofits looking to advance the safe, ethical, and effective use of digital resources for social good. With the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Digital Impact grants exceeded half a million dollars over three years.
The coalition’s $49,500 grant allowed the group to codify its structure and policies aimed at prioritizing tenants’ rights by protecting their data. The funds also covered basic costs like data training for tenant organizers and other non-coalition members, administrative costs, and hosting fees for the database; the database build itself was a volunteer effort by coalition members.
Even more significant, the funds challenged the all-volunteer group to think deeply about their goals. “It was sometimes difficult to determine how to spend the grant funds in a way that was equitable and made sense for the group,” says Francois, who managed the grant-related work.
The members’ reflections led to a discussion of who they wanted to be—a coalition representative of everyone confronting housing justice challenges. “We recognized a simple truth,” says Francois. “In order for our work to be meaningful—and not just a vanity project for civic tech developers—it has to be connected to the needs of the people who are working on the ground.”
Using grant funds, coalition members embarked upon a “listening” tour. Over eight months they met with representatives of grassroots tenant organizers who were not well versed in technology and had no time or money to spend figuring it out. These conversations led the coalition to dedicate additional Digital Impact grant money to awarding sub-grants to seven tenant organizations.
The outreach paid off by drawing even more members. Today, the coalition also comprises housing justice players, including state and city government workers, individuals with policymaking experience, and on-the-ground tenant organizers.
Now, Clement and other coalition members are looking to share their work and insights by talking with housing justice advocates in other cities about helping to build similar databases for their communities.
“We now have a foundation for doing high-level analysis without spending 90 percent of our time cleaning and joining datasets,” says Clement. “If we can show others how to do the same, we have the opportunity to build capacity for the tenant movement nationwide.”