February 10, 2014

Transforming Data from Static to Intuitive

Find out how a web redesign helped Maine Conservation Voters move from managing voting record information on paper to an easily accessible system built into their web architecture.

This case study was originally published along with a dozen others in our free e-book, Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits. You can download the e-book here.

NTEN: Gianna, tell us about your work at Maine Conservation Voters (MCV).

Gianna Short (GS): MCV plays a critical role in turning public support for conservation into new laws to protect our air, land, water, and wildlife. I’m the Data and Communications Coordinator so most of my work is done in front of the computer. However, there are only four of us on staff, along with a couple of consultants and interns, so I end up doing all kinds of other things. Our budget is under $400,000 per year.

NTEN: How are you working to make your data more publicly accessible?

GS: We’ve been publishing an Environmental Scorecard for the Maine State Legislature highlighting environmental bills and votes since 1986. This is valuable information in politics, and without fail, when an election is approaching, reporters and campaign managers call MCV to ask for a particular candidates score on environmental issues. We literally have been pulling old paper copies of the Scorecard off the shelf and tallying up scores for different sessions by hand, which is cumbersome to say the least.

Making this robust dataset more accessible is a new challenge, but also an exciting opportunity. We distribute our Environmental Scorecard to 13,000, but believe it could be useful to many more people. It’s great data that is unique to our organization. We have a different tax status than most environmental nonprofits which allows us to publish this kind of information and really sets us apart. You can learn so much about a legislator by examining these votes through the years.

NTEN: Why tackle this now?

GS: We’ve been redesigning our site over the past year, so I’ve worked with our web developer to build an easily accessible way to house all of that data directly into the website architecture. Our national partners at the League of Conservation Voters also recently relaunched their website with comprehensive voting records. We’re looking toward that as a model for our site.

NTEN: What did you do with the data to make this happen?

GS: Each legislator has several votes per year, and many serve several terms, in both houses, during multiple different time periods. It can get confusing. We had to determine the best type of relational setup to use in order to make the data searchable and coherent. Our web developer ended up creating a pretty ingenious system over the last few months. It’s both versatile and simple to use.

NTEN: How long did this take, how much has it cost, and how will you measure success?

GS: We started brainstorming the redesign in the summer of 2013. The new site will be finished in December with a total budget under $4,000.

So far, we have scorecard data since 2011 up on the site, and it seems to be working well. Now it’s just a matter of data entry for all the preceding years, and quadruple checking for accuracy.

One way well gauge success is by using Google Analytics to see who is using the site and how they are interacting with our content. People tend to find us when they use search engines to look for Maine legislators. If this type of visitor then clicks on a specific bill page and reads about an issue, thats a success. If the visitor then takes action by writing an email to her legislator about the issue, that’s a huge success.

NTEN: Who else from your organization was involved?

GS: Our web developer Lauren Meir and I basically did the whole project ourselves. MCV’s office culture is built on trust, so I have almost total autonomy over the web realm. This is wonderful and terrifying at the same time, and has been a great professional challenge for me. I am starting to do some hallway testing with the staff and board members now that the site is up.

NTEN: You’ve been working hard to create a more data-informed culture at MCV. What advice would you offer to others at small nonprofits like yours?

GS: Learn what other successful nonprofits are doing with data, and present that information in an inspiring way to your coworkers. Show your office what these other organizations are doing better, and then offer to take the lead on trying something new. With a little intra-sector competitive spirit, and the knowledge that what you want to introduce has been tried and tested by others already, people can get pretty excited about new ideas.