Imagine if every community nationwide had access to their own data — data on which children are missing too many days of school, which neighborhoods are becoming unaffordable, or where more mothers are getting better access to prenatal care.
This is a reality in some areas, where neighborhood data is analyzed to evaluate community health and to promote development. Cleveland is studying cases of lead poisoning and the impact on school readiness and educational outcomes for children. Detroit is tracking the extent of property blight and abandonment.
But good data doesn’t just happen.
These activities are possible because of local intermediaries, groups that bridge the gap between data and local stakeholders: nonprofits, government agencies, foundations and residents. These groups access data that are often confidential and indecipherable to the public and make them accessible and useful. And with the support of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP), groups around the country are championing community development at the local level.
Without a local data intermediary in Baltimore, we might know less about what happened there last year and why.
Freddie Gray’s death prompted intense discussion about police brutality and discrimination against African-Americans. But the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance (BNIA) helped root this incident and others like it within a particular place, highlighting what can happen when disadvantage is allowed to accumulate over decades.
BNIA, an NNIP member, was formed in 2000 to help community organizations use data shared by government agencies. By the time of Gray’s death, BNIA had 15 years of data across more than 150 indicators that demonstrated clear socioeconomic disadvantages for residents of Gray’s neighborhood, Sandtown-Winchester. The neighborhood had a 34 percent housing vacancy rate and 23 percent unemployment. The neighborhood lacks highway access and is poorly served by public transit, leaving residents cut off from jobs and services.
With BNIA’s help, national and local media outlets, including the New York Times, MSNBC and the Baltimore Sun portrayed a community beset by concentrated poverty, while other Baltimore neighborhoods benefited from economic investment and rising incomes. BNIA data, which is updated yearly, has also been used to develop policy ideas to revitalize the neighborhood, from increasing the use of housing choice vouchers to tackling unemployment.
Local data intermediaries like BNIA harness neighborhood data to make underserved people and unresolved issues visible. They work with government agencies to access raw data (e.g., crime reports, property records, and vital statistics) and facilitate their use to improve quality of life for residents.
But it’s not easy. Uncovering useful, actionable information requires trust, technical expertise, knowledge of the local context and coordination among multiple stakeholders.
This is why the NNIP is vital. NNIP is a peer network of more than two dozen local data intermediaries and the Urban Institute, working to democratize data by building local capacity and planning joint activities. Before NNIP’s founding partners, there were no advanced information systems documenting and tracking neighborhood indicators. Since 1996, NNIP has been a platform for sharing best practices, providing technical assistance, managing cross-site projects and analysis, and expanding the outreach of local data intermediaries to national networks and federal agencies. The partnership continues to grow. In order to foster this capacity in more places, NNIP has just released a guide for local communities to start a data intermediary.
When used properly, data can reveal patterns within anecdotes, suggest potential solutions and validate the lived experiences of people too often overlooked. As open data efforts spread, government agencies will release more and more data to the public. Local data intermediaries will be even more valuable in helping users sort through the data to surface, explain and address the issues distressed communities face.
Matt Lawyue is a communications associate with the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, and Kathryn L.S. Pettit is a senior research associate with the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, at the Urban Institute. Pettit is also the director of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership.