Texas Justice Initiative: When Qualitative Meets Quantitative




By: Eva Ruth Moravec, executive director of the Texas Justice Initiative

Eva Ruth Moravec is the executive director of the Texas Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that collects, vets and publicizes data on the criminal justice system. She co-founded the organization in 2017 in order to be a resource to individuals seeking data and context on public safety. TJI was borne out of a database of officer-involved shootings in Texas that Moravec started while getting her Master’s degree and has maintained that data set while adding additional sets to the portal. Moravec is also a freelance reporter and has reported on criminal justice and public safety in Texas for 15 years, starting in weekly community newspapers, then later daily local newspapers and national publications. View her portfolio, and find her on Twitter @EvaRuth.

 

For most of my 15 years as a reporter, the way I use words has been my focus. I’ve challenged myself to use them as efficiently as possible, spent hours deciding which ones to submit to an editor, and fumbled in identifying the right ones in definitions. When I started collecting data on officer-involved shootings in Texas, I did so as a way to find the stories, the narratives woven delicately with words that could help people resonate with complex concepts like the reasonableness of an officer’s use of force.

 

Yet soon after founding the Texas Justice Initiative (TJI) in 2017, it became clear to me that the world is full of storytellers, but what’s lacking is reliable, clean data. Yes, words matter, yet they needed data, the missing piece, to put them into context. 

 

Though I’d only started to use more data in my journalism, I believed in the need for it, and realized that we could fit this unmet need to be an unbiased resource to reporters, researchers, advocates, lawmakers, and the general public. The state of Texas requires law enforcement agencies to file certain reports, but the state doesn’t do much with them other than routinely provide summaries. Why not unleash this information and help people better understand what criminal justice looks like in Texas? 

 

Realizing that building the data portal of my dreams was way out of my skill set, I started to network and look around for help and Austin – with its burgeoning tech scene attracting workers who want to use their skills for good – provided plenty of opportunities. Open Austin, a local chapter of the Code for America Brigade, unites people regularly to hack on open government, open data and civic apps. GIS Corps, a national organization, matches nonprofit organizations with mapping pros. Austin Design Jam brings design-minded experts together to tackle design questions. Women Who Code Austin is a great place to find women interested in working on extra-curricular projects. These are just a few – look around, you’ll find plenty of others spanning various interests, skills, demographics, passions and locations. 

 

Finding the right techies who have both the needed skills and the interest in creating a better world is surprisingly easy, especially if you believe in your mission and can sell it well. Another hint to successful recruitment is to have a clear understanding of the desired deliverables. It’s also been helpful, though, to allow this vision some flexibility. Tech-minded volunteers can be extremely skilled and many enjoy problem-solving. Allowing them some creativity in designing and implementing various tools that are well-defined has, for me, led to great outcomes. It’s also very helpful to have clear conversations and understandings about deadlines, hours per week spent on the project and to set a few checkpoints along the way. In the beginning, it might be helpful for new volunteers to complete small issues and work with others to familiarize themselves with the team and work flow. 

 

Having an open mind is also important when it comes to project management. As someone whose hand regularly cramps from taking pen-and-paper notes, I have challenged myself to adopt the tools my team prefers for tasks and welcome their input on best practices. Early on, that meant establishing a regular meeting schedule, setting an agenda and making notes, organizing our documents and records, and establishing protocols, platforms and accounts. We were able to recruit a brilliant volunteer who focused on our logistics, ensuring we could access as many free or discounted tech tools as a nonprofit as possible. As we add volunteers – each of whom came to TJI with their own experiences and creativity – we discuss as a team what tools are best and listen to members’ preferences. My role is to facilitate these discussions and any logistical needs, and then get out of the way. Volunteers have taught me how to use GitHub to manage projects and assign coding tasks, to use Slack for communications, to utilize Google for Nonprofits’ tools and set up a robust Google Drive and, most recently, to log all of our meeting agendas and minutes in a running Google Document so absent team members can keep up. 

 

Our core volunteers have stayed involved over the past two years. At our Sunday meetings, I show my gratitude through coffee and snacks. I have found that the better organized and goal-oriented I am, the more comfortable volunteers who work in tech seem to be. Define the projects you seek to accomplish and set up procedures to monitor progress over time. Establish open communications with volunteers and check in regularly about deadlines and work tasks so that expectations are more likely to be met. Consistency and communication can provide the comfortable environment for folks to be creative, pitch in on each others’ work and accomplish great things.

 

This fall Mission Capital is partnering with Texas Justice Initiative to produce Mission Meet-Up: Taking a User Centered Approach to Data Work, where we will explore techniques you can use to help keep your data outputs (e.g. reports, graphs) user-centered. Join us to hear more about how TJI has incorporated user feedback into their data work.

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