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Data Equity Cohort at the midpoint: recent progress + future improvements

Published on Jan. 5, 2022 by Steven Vance

Chicago Cityscape’s mission is to spark and inspire equitable development and investment in Chicago’s overlooked neighborhoods. We accomplish this, in part, by gathering and creating datasets that show assets, amenities, construction, and investments that nobody else publishes. Our expansive community development and real estate information platform is complex and not yet available to or usable by everyone. Last year we decided to change who and how people access essential data and urban policy insights.

Data Equity Cohort members need to know the same data as anyone else doing real estate, community, and economic development, including where new construction is happening like in the photo above, but approach the needs from a mission-driven and community-informed perspective. Photo by Steven Vance, Bronzeville, November 2021.

What is DEC?

Chicago Cityscape created the Data Equity Cohort (DEC) last summer to teach and to learn. When the COVID pandemic began in early 2020, we tried to adapt to reach and assist new types of members: people and organizations who felt the calling to assist fellow Chicagoans with their health, housing, and property-related matters. While our efforts were unsuccessful, we received guidance from the Chicago Community Trust who then invited us to apply for a grant to form the DEC and operate a new type (for us) of collaborative design research.

Our goals for DEC are to give members unfettered and aided access to Chicago Cityscape, teach them how to use our powerful community and real estate development platform, learn from them what they need and how our platform can be a more useful and integral part of their work, and make specific changes based on their input.

That last goal is the most important: We are committing to making changes to the website and how we operate based on the feedback we get and the conversations we have with members, both in the meetings and one-to-one.

The program started in October and after a series of onboarding sessions and two series of meetings in October and November. Casey Smagala manages the program and discussions are facilitated by Kate Maitland, a design researcher hired specifically for DEC.

I’ll talk about what we’ve accomplished with the DEC program in 2021, but first I want to tell you about the members of DEC.

Who’s in DEC

DEC’s 28 members are mission-minded individual or organization leaders. They include non-profit economic development practitioners, developers, brokers, housing organizers, and other real estate professionals and consultants.

They are interested in (among many other goals):

  • Better understand development trends in their neighborhood (a service area or the community in which they work)
  • Recruiting and retaining new businesses and buildings, the specifics of which are based on community input
  • Highlight the assets of their area, especially transit, zoning, incentives, and developable land
The graphic visualizes eight goals that DEC members explained to us that they hope to use Chicago Cityscape to help them achieve.

We set equity goals at the beginning and embedded this into our recruitment strategy, and so I’m happy that the group’s demographics reflects the diversity of Chicago and its neighborhoods. A majority of DEC members are persons of color and a majority of them are women.

Finally, DEC members are compensated with a free Cityscape Real Estate Pro membership for the duration of the program (a nearly $1,000 value) and $250 for their time and input.

Where are we now

DEC has held two series of meetings with all members. Casey conducted an onboarding session with every DEC member in September and October to acquaint them with the Chicago Cityscape platform. (This onboarding is also available to every new member, outside of DEC.)

During DEC meetings, we’ve used diverse facilitation tools, from surveys to feedback discussions, to create the opportunity for members to share their experiences and ideas. We’ve covered a range of topics from their confidence level in using data to specific input they have to improve the Chicago Cityscape platform, including generating and ranking ideas for new features.

Because it’s important for us that the learning go in both directions, all meetings include a short demonstration of a “pro tip” on how to use Chicago Cityscape.

One part of our design research is to group so many different backgrounds, needs, and goals, into a few manageable “personas”. For example, “Rosa” is an amalgamation of some of the members in DEC, who needs myriad data resources but could benefit from improved presentation and the ability to share it.

Based on the feedback and data we’ve gathered from DEC members, we decided upon the “improvement commitments” described below.

Four improvement commitments

The four improvements Chicago Cityscape is committing to make comprise one new data feature, a new onboarding process that points new users towards the solutions their peers use, a tool that enables sharing of certain reports between colleagues, and putting contextual explainers and tutorials next to what members are using so the website becomes more “self-explanatory”.

1. Adding a new dataset

Showing vacant buildings is the next step for Cityscape to give members another data point to assess local opportunities. Nearly every DEC member cares about the status of properties in “their area”; it could be where they are employed to oversee or manage the economic development of, or an area where they prefer to do their real estate development.

Currently, Chicago Cityscape has vacant property within our Property Finder feature, making it super simple to locate these properties in Cook County. The status is based on the Cook County Assessor’s classification of the property. The challenge is that updated data can be delayed — the detail may not get collected in the first year that a property becomes vacant — and it has become less salient.

We have obtained another source, though: Property tax appeals due to vacancy. Commercial building owners are able to appeal and reduce their property’s assessed value due to a space in the building existing without a tenant. This dataset will be integrated with Property Finder and as a new section within Address Snapshots and Place Snapshots.

2. Strengthening the onboarding process

An “onboarding” process helps new users become acquainted with solutions that help them accomplish their goals. But we heard from DEC members that getting started using the Chicago Cityscape platform could be overwhelming. That makes sense because depending on how generously you look at it, Chicago Cityscape either doesn’t have an “onboarding” process, or it’s a hodgepodge of webpages.

Through this improvement commitment we will refashion how new users are presented with the capabilities of our community and real estate information platform. This will likely start by pointing new users to our “Solutions” pages that list features that can be used to accomplish certain goals. In addition, we may promote relevant Knowledge Base articles as people progress and learn about Cityscape’s capabilities at their own pace. (See also the next and final improvement commitment.)

3. Making reports shareable

All Chicago Cityscape features require a membership to use fully, to see and download all data, and to receive rich notifications. However, for most DEC members, including those who work with others who don’t have a membership, this sharing barrier can reduce the benefit of having so much access to high-quality data and insights that no other platform has.

We have a plan to make it possible to share our most popular report pages — Address Snapshot and Place Snapshot, to start — with other people. We will discuss the priorities our DEC members have to help us design this feature.

4. Offering more data context and confidence

An overarching theme was that Cityscape should do a better job of describing its capabilities, who they’re designed for, and how to use them. One way to do that would be to explain these “on the fly”, as people are discovering features.

One DEC member mentioned that the vibe they get from the site is that every feature is designed for people who “do” property development. And another member said that this may cause some people to miss that Chicago Cityscape has tools and data for them, even when “it has tremendous value to a lot of people outside of the context of development.”

A graphic with a lot of text. “Not all data is created equal and DEC members know it. They want to be able to see what kind of data they’re looking in a way that’s seamless to their experience without being distracting.” Then, there are three quotes from DEC members describing their concerns about data freshness and quality.
DEC members are quoted in the graphic above, describing their concerns about data freshness and quality.

Another deficiency is that while Chicago Cityscape talks about social equity it’s not reflected anywhere in the website.

To address both shortcomings, we have proposed a “help me with this” button that will be located amongst several features to provide context: Where the data comes from, how some people use the data, what the data’s own shortcomings are, related policies, and links to relevant Knowledge Base articles. A beta version of the “help me with this” button can be seen in Property Finder, which is one of our most powerful features.

The last steps

Kate and Casey will be hosting more sessions with our DEC members during which we’ll be sharing these proposed and in-progress improvements, using their feedback for further improvement, and ensuring they can leverage every solution on our site.

Before Chicago Cityscape access to the most valuable public data and policy insights for Chicago and Cook County that drives community and real estate development was only in the hands of well-resourced individuals. Now the information needed to spark and inspire more equitable investment in overlooked neighborhoods belongs to the folks who live there.

To our DEC members: Using a platform like Chicago Cityscape is new to most of them, and running a program like DEC is new to us. We thank them for making the time to help improve our platform for their peers and the betterment of Chicago.

Finally, thank you to the Chicago Community Trust for their investment in our DEC members via this program. Your support is helping democratize data to leaders who deserve it.


Data Equity Cohort at the midpoint: recent progress + future improvements was originally published in Chicago Cityscape’s Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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