Photo from video by the World Bank.

With so many school options, applications, and lotteries, there is a dire need for information that will help parents make the best choices for their children. Code for DC’s DC School Decisions project aims to use data and develop code that helps DC parents and students better navigate school lotteries and decisions.

The two of us started the volunteer-run project in late 2012, and got a huge boost at a recent “hackathon” for Open Data Day. On Open Data Day, participating cities host citizen-organized events where programmers, data experts and regular people come together to hack away at problems using technology.

But first, the School Decisions project needed meaningful data. We wrote a letter to Mayor Gray asking the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) to release several data sets. On the night before the Hack Day, OSSE’s Data Management Director, Jeff Noel, sent 12 data sets.

While OSSE could not provide all of the data we’d asked for (especially given the short notice), there were some useful pieces in what they shared. One set of DC CAS (standardized test) results shows how students of varying ethnicity, migrant status, special education needs, and more perform on DC’s regular standardized test. Other sets broke down math, reading and science DC CAS scores by grade and student groups. Another listed schools by DC’s new accountability categories.

More important than the actual data, this step signaled that the Mayor and OSSE are willing to be open and transparent, and to empower the community as partners.

Coders join the project at Open Data Day

Hack days begin with project leaders making pitches for what they want to work on. If other people want to help, they join, but only if the pitch is compelling. Our project attracted a small but super-talented team including local information architect (and prospective DC schools parent) Jami, NYU data scientist Aaron, and college student Alex. Tom Shen from OSSE’s Data Management team also joined us at the hack day, and Tom volunteered to help with our project as an expert on the data. Folks from other projects helped scrape datasets (Dave), and stopped by with ideas (Ayana).

What did the team do with this data? A few things. The most important track for the long term was to start to build the groundwork for organizing and managing the diverse sets of data we expect to integrate over time. We need to build a “schema” which relates the data sets to each other and helps people use multiple data sets to answer more complex questions.

To get started, we also built a few visualizations based on the data OSSE shared, like this one:

It shows the location of DCPS (circle) and DC public charter (triangle) schools, color-coding each school as designated by DC’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) school accountability system.

Note that most “reward” schools (purple) are located in the north and west of DC. Most “priority” schools (red) are south and east. According to OSSE, reward schools have “high” autonomy over school activities and flexibility over use of federal funding, while “priority” schools do not.

What’s next? We keep going. We hope to continue dialogue with OSSE, DC families, NGOs, and anyone else with an interest in DC education data. Working with Code for DC and our Open Data Day team, we will proceed with the longer-term work of building out the schema and data sets, hoping to build up a more complete picture of each school.

We also are looking for help from programmers to build easy-to-use tools to help busy parents weigh their options and make decisions according to their values and priorities. Want to help? Join our meetup group and get notices about future hack days and other events!