I had the pleasure of attending the Sustainable Neigbourhoods Summit last week. Hosted at the Evergreen Brickworks by the Canada Mortgage & Housing Corporation and Evergreen’s CityWorks project, the morning-long conference featured speakers on a variety of environmental sustainability projects, all of which focus their efforts on neighbourhood-level change. While many of the projects had a strong focus on helping homeowners make their houses more energy efficient, I found the other things they had in common far more interesting, and one in particular: data.
Data came up often as an important factor in most programs; it functions as a tool for planning, marketing, participation and funding. While feeling good about what you’re doing is one thing, having a tangible representation of the work and its effects opens up a lot of doors to improve your project and get other people involved. Collecting data allows projects to set benchmarks and measure their progress, and to set goals for the future. Funding organizations love data because it shows how far their dollar is going and whether they’re making a good investment. Participants and volunteers can use data to get a better understanding of how they’re making a difference.
Toronto’s Project Neutral is a great example of this. They work with neighbourhoods to collectively reduce their carbon footprint through home retrofits and behavioural changes. Each household goes through a thorough reporting of their energy use that’s aggregated with the rest of the neighbourhood reports, which allows people to see how they’re doing both personally and in relation to the rest of the community. The data establishes a baseline for the neighbourhood and each household, giving people something to work from and something to work towards. Project Neutral uses this data to help households develop an individualized action plan, as well as to define their organizational progress and goals.
I get really excited about data, and particularly about data presentation. If you’ve volunteered with Not Far From The Tree before, you know that we collect all sorts of data about each pick, and that data goes onto the website, into reports and helps plan for next year. The yearbook‘s are a great example. They features a number of infographics – collecting data into visually interesting and creative models. Together the story behind the data can come out, helping us understand more tangibly the human impact of numbers.
Data and infographics can also help us ask questions. For example, why was the 2011 harvest so much smaller than 2010? We had bad weather and a disease affecting pear trees. There were environmental challenges in 2012 as well, from cherries sneaking up on us early to drought affecting apple production throughout the province. From here we can start asking more questions, not just about what we can do as an organization to work with and meet these challenges, but about wider issues like urban agriculture, climate change and food security. We can also compare data and stories with other organizations to see how they work and what they’ve done to meet their challenges, and open up avenues for collaboration.
Participants at the summit also brought up other ways we can use data to improve our organizations and projects, including changing industry norms, scaling up projects through standardized data collection, and fostering freedom of information.
How would you use data collection and presentation to help improve Not Far From The Tree? What kind of data would you like to see from the project? What stories do you find in the data you see?
Editor’s Note: Jenna Hossack is a longtime supporter and volunteer with Not Far From The Tree.