Self-​​proclaimed “data geeks” descended upon Northeastern’s campus recently for a con­fer­ence focusing on the use of data to sup­port com­mu­ni­ties and advance soci­etal change. The university’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs teamed up with the Met­ro­pol­itan Area Plan­ning Council (MAPC) and the Boston Foundation’s Boston Indi­ca­tors Project to host the event in late January.

In one of sev­eral “how-​​to” work­shops, Stephanie Pol­lack, assis­tant director of the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy at North­eastern, explained the sig­nif­i­cance of data in the deci­sion making process of the Mass­a­chu­setts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), the system of sub­ways, buses and trains that affects a wide-​​reaching pop­u­la­tion across the state.

The MBTA recently announced plans to increase fares and reduce ser­vice cov­erage in response to a $161 mil­lion budget short­fall. Pollack’s talk pre­sented a host of data sug­gesting that nei­ther of the two pro­posed options will fix the under­lying finan­cial issues.

The MBTA,” she said, “actu­ally has four finan­cial prob­lems: It can’t pay its oper­ating budget, it can’t pay its debt, it doesn’t have enough money to fix the system, and it has basi­cally nothing at this point to expand the system.”

Last fall, the Dukakis Center, in con­junc­tion with other mem­bers of a coali­tion called Trans­porta­tion for Mass­a­chu­setts, issued a so-​​called primer on Massachusetts’s trans­porta­tion finance enti­tled “Maxed Out.”

The effort, Pol­lack said, was an attempt to nav­i­gate the T’s com­plex finan­cial issues, help politi­cians and pol­i­cy­makers under­stand them and make this data acces­sible to the gen­eral public — including those who will now be directly affected by changes in the system. She also noted that MBTA data is much more acces­sible today than it was in the 80s when she began her Mass­a­chu­setts trans­porta­tion finance work.

Throughout the day, other work­shops and pre­sen­ta­tions high­lighted the ben­e­fits indi­vid­uals and com­mu­ni­ties can reap from col­lecting and inter­preting avail­able data. Ses­sions focused on topics like data-​​mapping con­cepts, devel­oping com­mu­nity sur­veys and using health data to assess com­mu­nity health risks.

In wel­coming remarks, Barry Blue­stone, dean of Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, noted that data — par­tic­u­larly in the dig­ital era — could deliver pow­erful mes­sages. He pointed to the “1% vs. 99%” fig­ures used in the national Occupy movement.

What you will learn today is how to use data in cre­ative ways,” he said.