New York City’s 59 Community Boards (CBs) are our beloved city’s most locally-focused government agencies. The boards, which consist of community members appointed by local elected officials, as well as three to six operational staff led by a district manager, perform a number of functions related to land use, capital budgeting and evaluating the efficacy of city service delivery.

BetaNYC, a leading civic technology organization in New York City, has been providing CBs technology tools and training for years. During that time they methodically documented the various technology needs they heard from CB members and staff and turned it into a detailed list of the features CBs wanted in an information management tool set. When an opportunity arose in 2019 to present a toolset to CBs, BetaNYC worked with Sarapis to figure out the best path forward.

We evaluated the notes, spoke with BetaNYC’s team and CB stakeholders, and studied how CBs are currently meeting their own needs with a smattering of spreadsheets, documents and paper systems. The main impression we got was that CBs wanted more powerful tools, but they didn’t want to sacrifice their unique workflows, data structures and methods of doing business. It quickly became apparent that they wanted the flexibility of a spreadsheet with the power of a custom-built database. A perfect use case for DIY database technologies!

As such, we proposed a multi-phase approach where we first build a custom database backend “with” (instead of “for”) each CB, then work with them to design an appropriate interface for their database. We’d knit the database to the interface to create a working prototype, and then, if the prototypes were appealing, consider implementing them into a standardized open source software platform.

For the first phase of work, we documented how each of the 15 CBs that signed up for the program was collecting information related to constituent issue tracking and contacts. We then listed each field of data they collected and how the CBs grouped those fields together. We analyzed the similarities, merged the same fields together and gave each data field a popularity ranking. These became the fields where then implemented in Airtable and turning into a template that each of the CBs could use as they like.

Our initial analysis resulted in a mapping out over 650 fields into about 20 data tables. With deeper analysis and active collaboration with BetaNYC and CBs, we whittled that down into a functional Airtable template of 9 tables and approximately 300 fields. We deployed this template for our CB partners by importing their existing data resources into it, and then training them, one by one, to use it.

As they began to adopt the solution and use it to actively manage their data, we quickly discovered numerous ways the template could be optimized to meet the needs of individual CBs, and how that could inform the template as a whole. In October we did an analysis of each CBs use of data fields, and used that information sharpen the template: reducing the number of tables and fields, and creating new views that made it easier for CBs to use the template for more things. Once we were confident our new template was as good as could be, we migrated CBs from the old template to the new one. This result is 15 CBs all using optimized and compatible Airtable templates.

Thanks to COVID-19 sending NYC government agencies, and their budgets, into disarray, it’s hard to tell what will become of the project. Hopefully the Airtable will continue to be used, and refined to meet CB needs, and maybe in the not too distant future we’ll be able to build some custom front ends on top of these Airtable databases. Or maybe some CBs will chose to export their data from Airtable into a different database solutions. The flexibility is there for each of the CBs to do any and all of these things.

We’re excited to see where the project goes!

To learn more about the CBDB program check out the program’s page on Beta.NYC.

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