Aaron provides data visualization, impact measurement, and policy analysis services for non-profit clients around issues of community development, public transportation, early childhood education, and workforce development in Buffalo, NY.

"I was positioned as the guy with the skills, or the guy leading the team with the skills, that would lead us to the promised land. And that’s just not the reality of it. There’s already people leading you to the promised land. The question is - 'is it going to take you 15 years to get there, or three months to get there?’

I can help you get there in three months but I’m just your GPS, you have to do the walking. And I think a lot of people that I meet who have similar skill sets or who work in the tech, data, analytic space are heralded as heroes and believe that they are, and that is what fails us."

It’s pretty common for my discussions with folks in a city to cross-pollinate.  For other local data players to come up in conversations, along with a recommendation to reach out, to have a look at what the person’s up to, or an offer for a connection.  What’s not common is for it to happen in almost every conversation I have in a given place.  I heard a variation of “You should check out the Wastewater Warehouse” (An SMS-based chatbot and analytical dashboard Aaron’s team built to decentralize the process of storm and wastewater data collection) about eleven times.  He was like Keyser Söze, without the ties to organized crime, with seemingly more concern for sewer overflow into Lake Erie, and with a fair expectation that he actually existed.

Aaron did, indeed, exist.  A self-proclaimed "Big nerd when it comes to collective action”, he spends a lot of time navigating questions of how people make decisions, how they overcome society’s problems, and what role he, and data, can play in this effort.  Our conversation found it’s orbit around two particular issues (1) The Role of the Analyst and (2) Collective Action.

So what does an an analyst do?

“The whole goal, I see my job as reducing information asymmetries and reducing coordination costs for the people I work with.

If I’m walking into a new problem, whether it’s lead poisoning prevention or stormwater management, I just try and listen. And I think people with skills, whether they’re engineers, computer engineers, computer scientists, data scientists, whatever title we put on it, people get so caught up in their title that they forget that they have a skill set that they should use to help other people accomplish their goals, and they have to listen to those people to find out what those goals are.”

The idea of being a navigator resonates with me.  It’s not often, especially in the mission-driven space, that data is the engine of an organization.  It is more often an enabling and expediting factor.  Enabling what, expediting what, and in what context, led us down the pathway of collective action. 

“In an environment where information asymmetries and coordination costs are high, and you’ve got public problems like lead poisoning, but nobody seems to know what do about it, this is a fundamental collective action problem because there’s not enough information moving through the system and the costs of coordination are far too high...

If you can get the right kinds of analysis into the hands of the right people, around the same table is ideal, because you need the relationships to be informed, not the individuals, the relationships. They need to agree, Person X and Person Y, they need to sit across the table and say ‘we agree on this data point and something needs to be done about it'. That’s where the change happens."

Aaron cited Gary Fine‘s Tiny Publics, regarding the power that small groups have on individual organizations and civic engagement more broadly, and the implications this has towards more effective changemaking efforts.  We know change will come, it’s just a matter of in which direction and if we, the folks working with data, can be better navigators, and help make things happen in months instead of years.  Or years instead of decades.


Elinor Ostrom; Governing the Commons

Mancur Olson, Jr.; The Logic of Collective Action

Gary Fine; Tiny Publics


Cazwest; Wastewater Warehouse

AKRO; Lead Poisoning Dashboard