A national nonprofit wants to spend up to $1 million in Duluth and other cities for groups with ideas about making large amounts of data meaningful to the rest of us.
“I think most of us find that we aren’t comfortable with data,” said Lilian Coral, director of national strategy and technology innovation for the Knight Foundation. “And really, we shouldn’t have to be. … It’s the power, the tools and the technology that are at our disposal. But we don’t all have to be data scientists in order to take advantage of it in this new era.”
The Knight Foundation invests in the 26 cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers, including the Duluth News Tribune. Last year, as part of its “Smart Cities” work, it invested $5.25 million in putting residents at the center of self-driving vehicle pilot projects across the country.
When Knight has an “open call” for proposals, as in this case, it typically gets thousands of responses, Coral said in a telephone interview.
This time, they’re looking for projects that will take the unprecedented amount of data available and translate it in a way that will strengthen community engagement and engage community challenges, according to a Knight Foundation news release.
If you’re a Facebook person, you may have seen an example of that sort of thing Nov. 5, according to Coral. With support from the Knight Foundation, an organization called Democracy Works took data from over 10,000 election offices, standardized it and pushed it through Google and Facebook. Among other things, that resulted in a reminder on Facebook pages last week to go to the polls.
Coral said she thinks similar things can be done on a more local scale.
“There’s individual decisions in your community,” she said. “There’s community-wide decisions that we make. We think all of this could be amplified and helped if we think more creatively about how we distribute this information.”
Civically engaged nonprofit startups might be the most likely to seek these grants, Coral said.
If a grant went to a Duluth group, it wouldn’t be the first time. For instance, last summer’s “Imagine Canal Park” project received support from a $200,000 Knight Foundation grant. The foundation also provided funding to allow Texas visionary Jason Roberts to come to Duluth last summer and help plan a demonstration project for improvements to the Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue East intersection.
But was the money well-spent? Will it have any long-term impact?
“I think this was purely a positive spin,” said Adam Fulton, Duluth's interim director of planning and development, of the Canal Park project. “We’ve gotten so much out of it, it’s incredible.”
A survey about the project, released last December, gave it a mixed review. A winter celebration, Cold Front February, got a 98% positive rating. But 77% responded negatively to a temporary change to Lake Avenue that allowed three lanes of traffic at the expense of parking. Sixty-two percent said they disliked blocking off traffic on Buchanan Street and creating a pedestrian plaza.
But the Lake Avenue experiment led to a permanent turning lane to allow a left turn to Morse Street when the Aerial Lift Bridge is up, Fulton said. A “way-finding” system for pedestrians helped the tourism economy, he added.
Experiments with public art, such as street-painting on Buchanan Street, are being imitated in other parts of Duluth, he said. Free rides into and out of Canal Park on the Port Town Trolley in the summer have been an unqualified success.
Shawna Mullen, active living coordinator for Zeitgeist, which led the Sixth Avenue East/Fourth Street project, said that although improvements aren’t immediately visible, they will be in the long run.
“The bulk of that change and work is on the relationship-building and process and systems side of things,” Mullen wrote in an email. She detailed two recommendations and the creation of a “tactical urbanism toolkit” that came out of the experiment. Also, she wrote, local entrepreneurs were given the chance to try out ideas in a lot next to the intersection without a great deal of initial investment. Two of those are moving on to the next steps of developing a business.
Without commenting on the Duluth-specific grants, Coral said the Knight Foundation doesn’t see it as wasted money if everything tried isn’t an absolute success.
“Some of it is just you’re trying a new idea and it just doesn’t catch on, it doesn’t work,” she said. “And what I’m finding in my work … (is) it’s actually in those lessons that if people are really invested they learn a lot.”