LiveStories screen shot

Storytelling platform adds image, video options for data visualizations

A web platform that helps local governments use citizen data scientists to extract actionable information from their data has added a new storytelling feature.

Users of LiveStories’ platform have three options: creating a library of city data, interactively exploring it, and now presenting the data in a story-type format, including photos and videos. The company announced this new data library in May.

To create data stories, LiveStories connects to a local government’s databases, regardless of what systems they use. It pulls the data into its library, which has more than 1,500 indicators, such as income levels, rent statistics and vaccination rates, across 50,000 U.S. locations. It also taps into federal data, such as information from the Census Bureau and its American Community Survey, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.

“They can use the library that we have or they can upload their own data and then use their data with the library,” said LiveStories founder Adnan Mahmud.

Once the library is set up, users can begin searching. For instance, to find out the income breakdown in a particular city, they can search “income” and get income-related indicators returned. Next, they can choose the one they want, enter the ZIP code for the area of interest and compare the data with other cities in the state or country with a similar population size.

“Once you have charts that you like, that you want to communicate to your audience, whether it’s internal or external, you’re able to take those charts and combine them with photos and videos ... to narrate the story that you want to tell with that data,” Mahmud said.

The platform also lets users work together on a single platform  and share their charts, graphs, videos and photos through social collaboration features that include feedback requests.

Traditionally in local government, data requests go to data analysts, whether they come from the mayor, the media or the public, Mahmud said. “The problem with that is, firstly, there aren’t enough data analysts to answer all the questions,” he said. “Second, the data analysts are the only ones who know how to write queries against the archaic, decades-old systems…. They have deep analytical skills, but they are stuck doing very simple tasks most of the time because other people up the chain don’t feel comfortable switching a bar chart to a pie chart.”

That’s why Mahmud started the company two years ago -- to create a platform that enables non-technical government employees, or citizen data scientists, to use civic data to generate simple visualizations without having to know how to write complex queries. This frees the trained analysts to tackle more-complicated tasks.

The company focuses on state and local governments because those are the ones that typically lack resources for data analysis, Mahmud said. “Our goal is to make sure that every county, every city, every school district has the tools they need to make use of the information so they can make better decisions and allocate resources better,” he said. “That won’t happen if we just give it to the biggest cities or the biggest counties.”

Despite that niche, the Defense Department’s Defense Digital Service launched an open data portal -- data.mil -- using LiveStories last December. The first presentation is called Theater History of Operations, and it uses a database of historic aerial bombings from World War I through the Vietnam War.

“Our goal is to increase the public’s interaction with and understanding of their military,” Mary Lazzeri, the service’s site creator, said in a statement. “The LiveStories platform helps us tell the full story around the data and engage a wider audience.”

Editor's note: This article was changed July 13 to clarify the nature of the May upgrade.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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