Digital Communities

Opinion: Use Partnerships, Data Visualization to Tackle Urban Challenges More Effectively

With guidance from the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, cities are able to explore how to confront everyday problems with data.

by Jie Wu, The Urban Edge / May 21, 2018

Last week, my colleague Mingming Zhang and I travelled to Atlanta, Georgia for the Spring 2018 partner meeting of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP). The NNIP network, founded in 1996, is a collaboration between the Urban Institute and more than 30 local partners across the country that build and operate local data systems and facilitate the use of neighborhood data in local decision-making and community building, especially in low-income neighborhoods. In 2016, the Kinder Institute for Urban Research was accepted as a local partner, the fourth partner in Texas. Through the Houston Community Data Connections, the Kinder Institute promotes the practical use of data by city and community leaders in community building and local policymaking that ultimately improves the lives of people in disadvantaged communities.

Our hosts in Atlanta, Neighborhood Nexus, a partnership between the Atlanta Regional Commission and Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, did a great job in welcoming us to their city with awesome food and southern hospitality. I was struck by how similar Atlanta is to Houston: sprawl, cost of living, annual population growth, bad traffic, lack of affordable housing, etc.

In the past few years, I’ve learned so much from this peer-to-peer network, and am inspired by other partners’ work. A few partners are also university-based centers and institutes such as the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation in Los Angeles and the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, a founding member of NNIP, which won this year’s G. Thomas Kingsley Impact Award. These organizations understand their role as community data intermediaries and share best practices.

Here are a few takeaways from the meeting in Atlanta:

Creating Equitable Growth

Many southern cities like Houston and Atlanta continue to grow in geography, population and local economy. However, we have also witnessed the rising inequality in major policy areas such as health and educational outcomes, economic mobility, housing and transportation choices. How can cities promote more equitable growth in the region? Rodney Milton Jr., assistant director of neighborhood revitalization for Atlanta’s Department of City Planning, and his colleagues collaborated with Neighborhood Nexus and created an interactive gentrification vulnerability map tool last year. Rodney explained to me the neighborhood dynamics in Atlanta: The high socioeconomic neighborhoods are located in the northern part of the city with an upside down triangle shape, and the concentrated poverty is adjacent to the rich neighborhoods with a heart shape beneath the triangle.

At the NNIP meeting, Rodney presented two place- and people-based revitalization efforts in Westside neighborhoods — The Westside Promise Zone and the University Choice Neighborhood program, and offered a tour to the two neighborhoods. Rodney said that the city laid out the strategies for equitable neighborhood change in a report. The idea is to reform the building codes, tax codes and foreclosure policies, and support rental assistance and tenant rights education programs.

Another project mentioned at the meeting is the Atlanta BeltLine, a $4.8 billion transportation project that will create a 22-mile mixed-use trail of parks and streetcars circling inside city neighborhoods. The goal is to improve the city’s traffic and spur neighborhood revitalization. As the project attracts more development and businesses, it’s also raised concerns about displacement in the neighborhoods along the corridor. Many affordable housing advocates such as Housing Justice League are concerned that this will lead to displacement even with the proposed inclusive zoning ordinance.

Building equitable communities has become a key priority for mayors, especially in the Sun Belt states, as they have experienced rapid growth in the past three or four decades. Sun Belt cities can definitely learn from each other through a peer-to-peer network like NNIP.

Using Data to Advance Racial Equity

With equity challenges top of mind for so many cities and mayors, there is an essential role for data to play. One of the strategies introduced at the conference was a toolkit for talking about racial equity, which can be applied to data services.

In addition, the Urban Institute distributed a nice summary checklist adapted from “More Race Matters #3- Advancing Better Outcomes for All Children: Reporting Data Using a Racial Equity Lens.” That guide called on researchers and people working with data to think through the choices underpinning their analysis, asking questions like; “As you review your selection of indicators, how can you add more that are structural (e.g., percentage of homes exposing children to lead in a section on housing or early childhood success; or percentage of teens participating in after-school programs in indicators about adolescent development)?”

Particularly critical for addressing equity issues, the guide pushes researchers to think not just in terms of deficits but assets as well. The guide explains:

Assets-focused indicators make it easier not to stigmatize families or individualize explanations for shortcomings. For example, it is easier to get people to think about economic barriers when the indicator is percentage of families with “sufficient” incomes to raise children (e.g., above poverty level) rather than when the indicator is percentage of children living in poverty.

Making Data Accessible

As a local data intermediary, we need to know what the best way is to share the results and spread the information. Researchers at the Kinder Institute are asked to consider how the results will be disseminated and used from the beginning of the project. A dissemination plan will help guide the research process and keep the researchers focused on the project goal.

At the NNIP meeting, I joined Laura Simmons, director of community indicators at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, a colleague from my first NNIP meeting, and Rob Pitingolo from the Urban Institute, to present on sharing the results of a data visualization survey and showcasing how we utilize data visualization tools to disseminate research results more effectively.

There’s no end of new and exciting ways to visualize data. Visualisingdata.com has a list of more than 250 data visualization tools and applications. The five most popular visualization tools among NNIP partners are Microsoft Excel, ArcGIS, Microsoft PowerPoint, Adobe Illustrator and Tableau. I’m glad that I was able to share my views and experience in using Esri Story Maps and presented two examples created by our Houston Community Data Connections team at the meeting: Mapping Houston Development and the 2018 Kinder Houston Area Survey.

To learn more about how you can utilize neighborhood-level data to drive social and policy changes, please visit Houston Community Data Connections’ gallery.

This story was originally published by The Urban Edge