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Generative AI will democratize data for Changemakers

Read Time 6 mins | Written by: Stephen Hardy

Few things have been as rewarding for our team as hearing stories like San Francisco's efforts toward VisionZero, KABOOM!’s recognition at the White House, or seeing familiar faces in the New York Times: Fort Worth and San Antonio

Stories like these are the reason we’ve spent the last decade building tools to democratize community data, and we’re proud to have helped thousands of analysts, researchers, and unsung data heroes produce community data for community decisions. 

But the journey is far from over. 

Our customers consistently emphasize the need for broader engagement with data, pointing out that despite progress, there's still a significant gap in participation. 

This feedback reinforces our belief in the critical role of data in shaping effective community strategies. While there may be complements to data, there are no substitutes.

But if data is this important, why is it still so hard to get and use? Why is it always treated as a step in someone else’s workflow? Why do we use it for “big” decisions (sometimes, if we can) but not more common and equally impactful everyday decisions? 

In our experience, three big barriers prevent broader engagement with data:

  • Mindset, or the persistent belief that there are "data people" and everyone else.
  • A lack of user-friendly tools, because most data tools are designed for experts, and not the everyday community changemakers who are closest to the work.
  • The "last mile" problem, or the reality that even when skillful data teams deliver impressive analysis, a lot is lost in translation to decision makers. Executives, policymakers, and others struggle to turn data into actionable information.

A new era for data access

Every once in a while, though, a technology comes along that obliterates obstacles of the past. 

Generative AI is one of those technologies. It has the unique ability to transform complex and voluminous data into digestible, easily understandable formats. It can create data summaries, visualizations, and deliver personalized insights in natural language.

Essentially, it can act as a bridge, translating the language of data into the vernacular of many different domains of expertise and styles of communication. 

The thoughtful, ethical application of AI will transform how we live, work, and think across all disciplines, including local government, public health, and philanthropy. 

As AI-powered data tools come online, data will no longer have to be someone else’s job. That mindset will shift, because the tools will be easy to use and tailored to individual roles, goals, and needs. Every Changemaker will have a data sidekick. And we’re building it. 

Just a couple of weeks ago, we released Sidekick, an AI-powered assistant that will let anyone who cares about a place use data to make it better. You can join the beta waitlist below.

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Meet Sidekick, the AI-powered data assistant designed for Changemakers.
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Ask Sidekick for data suggestions to help you find the most relevant data within our library of more than 4 billion datapoints.
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Find answers to help you drive change in your community with data.

A data assistant built for Changemakers

We’re building Sidekick to solve the last-mile problem for Changemakers, the people who are working on the most critical challenges of our generation. 

Many of these issues are complex and sensitive. Things like food security, housing and health outcomes require accurate, reliable information that can be trusted.

What makes Sidekick unique is its full integration with WhereHouse, mySidewalk’s library of 5 billion data values from 5,000 datasets and 50+ sources. Our team has meticulously verified, cleaned, transformed, and calculated data for every corner of every community. 

This library has always been the foundation of our platform, tools, and solutions. Now, in Sidekick, the integrity of WhereHouse and the power of AI combine to enable better data access, insights discovery, storytelling, and even data literacy – for everyone. 

Sidekick will guide seasoned data professionals through advanced analytics to get to insights faster and present their findings more effectively. For those less comfortable with data, it will make data easier to find, interpret, and act on.

First, during our current limited beta, our development priority is to ensure a strong foundation from which to expand Sidekick’s capabilities. This foundation must be built on trust.

When you ask a question or want Sidekick’s help thinking through a policy or program from a data perspective, we want Sidekick to utilize the best data for the task. Additionally, we want Sidekick to be able to tell you as much as possible about the data it uses: where it came from, its recency, what it’s measuring (and what it’s not). 

The most important thing is for the user to feel confident in Sidekick’s assistance, and when that’s in place, it will unlock a world of possibilities.

In time, Sidekick will grow to be a very capable data assistant. Providing advice, scouring the data for insights, simplifying modeling, and allowing someone who's never created a map before to make one instantly – this future is only months away. 

Building the future of communities

But these possibilities extend far beyond Sidekick itself. For us, the mission isn’t about a tool, it’s about what that tool can help us do. It’s about how democratized data access, analysis, and storytelling will amplify our individual and collective impact for the good of our communities.

In concrete terms, it’s about supporting in a bigger way than ever before, Houston’s affordable housing programs to eliminate homelessness, San Francisco’s safe transportation access, KABOOM!’s efforts to build playspace equity, San Antonio’s vision for improved health outcomes, and so many more Changemaking ideas. 

It’s these possibilities that attracted many of us to work at the intersection of public life and technology in the first place. And we’re grateful to be entering this new era with you.

Want early access to Sidekick?

Stephen Hardy

Stephen Hardy is the CEO of mySidewalk, and is responsible for providing strategic vision for the team and making sure anyone can find value with data. In 2016 he spearheaded mySidewalk's participation in The Opportunity Project, a White House initiative promoting accessible data for everyone. Before mySidewalk, Stephen launched the city planning practice at BNIM (2011 AIA firm of the year), where he became a highly sought expert for cities rebuilding after disasters. Stephen is certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is a graduate of Harvard's Graduate School of Design.