The tagline of the new DCA research tool Neighborhood Arts Profile (NAP) is “a data platform to advance arts education and equity in the City of Los Angeles.” Along with the project’s core directive to “improve arts and cultural services,” its design and implementation team is just as interested in reimagining the presentation of data systems themselves. In other words, less math, more storytelling.
Beginning with a foundation of hyperlocal community systems, the DCA based its interactive map on the L.A. Times and its historic designation of the 104 neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Then it obtained arts statistics from DCA partners, grantee venues and organizations, the 250 museums, libraries and cultural monuments in the region, and so on. The LAUSD keeps an “Arts Equity Index” that tracks access and education. Censuslike surveys of income and services such as the “Index of Displacement Pressure” study also contribute to the database.
NAP’s chief, Dr. W.F. Umi Hsu, Ph.D., is not only an ethnomusicologist but a tech-drenched researcher by nature and experience, and an artist in their own right. “Science, stories, mission of access and equity,” Umi says, “data serves it all.” They describe a process wherein information becomes insight, which in turn becomes action. This sentiment is echoed by DCA general manager Danielle Brazell, who characterizes the agency’s open data initiative as a 21st-century “commitment to understanding a healthy art ecology.”
“You can’t look at the arts in a vacuum, without thinking about social justice,” says Umi, and the NAP tool is built to remind you of that. An easy-to-use drop-down list of filters lets you select for whatever factors best answer your questions and tell your story. You can sort by ZIP code, prevalence of public schools, proximity of museums or libraries, by poverty levels, age, race and so on, to get as clear a picture as possible of access to cultural resources on a granular level. It’s an engaging, surprising and often moving perspective from which to learn about your own city, layer by layer.
The DCA’s hope for this new geospatial web tool comes in layers, too: the thoughtful collection of existing datasets from socioeconomic and ethnographic research, both within the DCA and across several state and local agencies, and with the support of cultural research partners from the Los Angeles County Arts Commision to DiscoverLA — and the 150 volunteers who showed up to its very first datathon; the design of an enticing, dynamic and user-friendly interface; getting the public and the policymakers a more comprehensive understanding of the reality of access to culture and the real information about who is, and is not, making use of our city’s cultural institutions and opportunities, and why; and finally, taking action.
Phase 1 focuses on the youth experience, with a pronounced educational perspective to its contours of accessibility. Phase 2, among other layers, will begin to aggregate cultural events data, both tracking of usage and some form of calendar to further facilitate access. Will Caperton y Montoya, the DCA’s director of marketing, development and design strategy, is clear on the value of this undertaking. “The more progressive agencies in the city see the need for someone like Umi,” he says — Umi's full title is senior project coordinator/digital strategist in the marketing development, design and digital research division. “We are a slow-moving engine at times but we never stop trying to reach young people where they already are,” meaning both in their neighborhoods and on their media platforms.
The NAP is assertively interagency and intersectional in its aggregation and presentation of this data, its shepherds knowing that choices about where to get information are themselves acts of social and political impact. Formulating the inquiry so as to be flexible and inclusive from the start is the whole point of being, as Brazell puts it, “stewards of the public trust.”