Boston Indicators Project: Accessible Data Visualization Capabilities 

As students, no matter what discipline you study, at some point you will have the unfortunate experience of sitting through a PowerPoint presentation that analyzes table after table of data on topics from economics to biology and psychology. Unless you’ve just had your morning coffee, you probably don’t want to be looking at endless number-filled tables all the time.

Thankfully you don’t have to. A number of initiatives around the country are attempting to make data analysis easier and more exciting by providing visualization software, often at no charge to the user. One of these programs in Massachusetts is the Boston Indicators Project, who according to their website, “[aim] to democratize access to information, foster informed public discourse, track civil goals, and report on change.”

Upon hearing about this project, I assumed the site would serve as a common source data bin for researchers to analyze. In actuality, the project does much more. Yes, data tables are available to download for personal analysis, but more impactful are the visualization options. Below you can see the percentage of 25-34 year-olds with a BA degree or higher in Boston, based on neighborhood, from 2006-2010. The darker regions have a higher percentage, and the lighter regions have a lower percentage.

Members of the Boston Indicators Project produced this image by just using publicly accessible data from the American Community Survey. Personally, I find it much more enjoyable and easier to analyze why East Boston has a higher percentage of residents with a BA than Mattapan from a visual representation like this as opposed to a simple table of data.

However, the project does not stop there. Users can create their own data visualizations for Boston and Massachusetts based on factors from education and housing to the environment and economy through a companion website called the Metro Boston Data Common. They can then post them for public use. For example, the image below uses data from the MA Elections Division to show the number of registered voters by municipality in 2010, again with darker shades having a higher number. For reference: Somerville had 43, 244 registered voters as of 2010.

Students in a variety of disciplines can take advantage of these free, open-source data collections to easily display research variables in a presentation, paper, or even video. As a specialist in the social sciences, the time it takes to create my own graphs in Excel or other traditional software options can deter me from more detailed analysis. Sources like the Boston Indicators Project and the Metro Boston Data Common make that process much smoother and can be a vital tool for student use. Give it a try on your next big assignment!

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