July 30, 2010

Baltimore City Data Day Aims to Empower Baltimore Communities through Democratization of Data

Sarah Rodman, MPH

Sarah Rodman, MPH

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Center for a Livable Future

As I intend to dedicate the better part of my career to research, I am often confronted with the fear that even the highest quality data can end up out in the ether of peer-reviewed publications that never make their intended splash, seen by a limited few and impacting even fewer. Last Friday I attended Baltimore City Data Day, held at the University of Baltimore, which was the product of the work of AmeriCorps Vista volunteers, in collaboration with the Baltimore City Department of Planning and Health and the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance – Jacob France Institute (BNIA-JFI). The goal of the free-to-register conference was to inform community organizations and residents about how to access different neighborhood-based data in order to “help communities expand their capacity to use technology and data to advance their goals.” The idea of allowing data that is collected at all tiers to be used for bottom-up action and advocacy sits well with me. Filtering data back to the communities that they are collected from, in order to strengthen the communities’ own agendas, begins to quell my fears about an academic research career and the uneasiness I feel about the town-gown tension that has historically plagued Johns Hopkins University.

The conference crowd was a mix of community organization representatives, interested citizens and data collectors and researchers. All in attendance received a binder of references for data resources, organized by neighborhood resources, economic development, crime and public safety, public health, housing, environment and 2000 Census information. In addition, there was a grants section with lists of diverse grants available for community organizations and residents to apply to and tips on writing strong grant applications. In this post, I will summarize some of the key resources I encountered throughout the day. For more information on the conference, the agenda, and some of the final presentations, click here.

The morning started with a poster session, followed by a panel discussion on Perspectives on Exploring Your Community Through Data. Kathryn Pettit, Co-Director of the National Neighborhoods Indicators Partnership (NNIP) and Senior Associate at the Urban Institute, highlighted the need to spend resources wisely and to look at communities as a whole, to avoid the warring between silos that may fight for different causes, but share the goal of improving their community. NNIP is a collaboration between the Urban Institute and 34 local partners nationwide that focuses on direct data use by stakeholders to advance the state of practice, build and strengthen local capacity and influence local and national policy. In 2004, they were instrumental in repealing a Rhode Island ban that stopped felons convicted of selling drugs and the felons’ families from ever receiving benefits from the Family Independence Program or Food Stamps. They did so by using data on how many children of felons were being adversely affected by the ban.

Spencer Nichols, Deputy Director for CitiStat, urged citizens and groups to dial 311 for non-emergency complaints, as it is one data source that Baltimore City uses to evaluate its agencies on their services. CitiStat evaluates the effectiveness of local policies, procedures and services. In an attempt to increase the transparency in the city’s work and progress, soon all service requests made by residents will be publicly available in map form, complete with progress status for each request. Nichols encourages people to contact CitiStat directly to ask for help with requesting/ locating city data: citistat1@baltimorecitygov.

Matthew Kachura of BNIA-JFI presented the data available on a neighborhood-scale on their website. BNIA-JFI coordinates the work of various entities that collect data in order to help people and organizations make decisions for Baltimore that are based on available and accessible data that is accurate and reliable. Because of support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, BNIA-JFI is able to provide free support to organizations and agencies that need data cleaned, geocoded, analyzed or disseminated. BNIA-JFI puts out “Vital Signs” reports about Baltimore neighborhoods that are provided for free on their website, but can often be given at a smaller scale upon request. While health is addressed in the category of “Children and Family Health,” there is a dearth of health indicators available. Notably absent are indicators related to obesity and obesity-related diseases that are a large health burden of Baltimore City’s residents, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. I was able to give this feedback in a lunch session where conference attendees were encouraged to give formal feedback about the relevancy and usefulness of current and potential new indicators through distributed forms.

The morning workshop that I attended, Using Data to Achieve Health Equity, had presenters from the city and state levels, in addition to academia. Ryan Petteway, an epidemiologist from the Baltimore City Health Department, presented health data for Baltimore City and discussed the Neighborhood Health Profiles, reports put out by the city that bring together data about major health outcomes for 55 Baltimore Community Statistical Areas. The Profiles inform communities about their health status and give them tools to advocate for improvement. I was happy to hear that future reports will soon include indicators for social determinants of health. It was also good to see that many of the figures that Petteway presented were food-oriented (eg, a diabetes map with a fast food outlets layer, density of corner stores and carryout shops shown to follow an economic gradient), reconfirming an awareness of the food environment-health link at the city level.

The afternoon workshop, Resources from University-Based Research, featured three Hopkins research presentations. While I found it regrettable that there was no diversity in terms of institutions represented, the three presentations were diverse in nature. CLF’s Amanda Behrens presented various food system maps for Baltimore City and highlighted CLF’s experience in collecting and synthesizing data on a community level, such as a food system analysis for the Middle Branch neighborhood, who approached the CLF for input about the food environment as part of implementing the Middle Branch Master Plan. Mieka Smart of Drug Investigations, Violence and Environmental Studies (DIVE) presented on the Neighborhood Inventory for Environmental Typology (NIfETy), a project that takes stock of “social toxins” in Baltimore City by randomly selecting city blocks and taking account of environmental factors on that block in great detail, using PDA devices. The NIfETy tool can be found here, and an application for using the data can be found here. The final presentation was from three former Masters of Public Policy students who took part in the Baltimore Policy Project, an annual research project started in 1994, where they evaluated the impact of several development strategies in Baltimore City.

The conference was a great opportunity to gather multiple resources for community organizations and residents that are seeking to empower their neighborhoods.  However, absent was talk of any kind of qualitative data. The afternoon session ended with a plea from an audience member to include this in next year’s conference. The rest of the audience seemed to enthusiastically agree and talked for a while about the importance of stories and the human aspect to data – there are certain truths, results and explanations that cannot be captured with quantitative data alone.

Overall, there was a high level of enthusiasm. I hope it continues in future years and that they make the gathered resources available in an easily accessible place so that those unable to attend the conference can benefit from them as well. It is important to note that in addition to strengthening the efforts of those on the receiving end of the data, the conference also strengthens the work of those researchers generating the data who want to see their efforts and collaborations make as much of an effect as possible.

A few additional helpful resources:

Housing data by zipcode: Metropolitan Regional Information Systems

Statistics for Maryland resident health events: Maryland Assessment Tool for Community Health

Gateway for environmental and public health databases in Maryland: The Maryland Environmental Public Health Tracking

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