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Austin Targets Youth Obesity With Neighborhood-Level Data

Neighborhood-level maps illuminate the conditions faced by families and children in the area, all while protecting personal information.

Children’s Optimal Health (COH) is an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit committed to improving all aspects of health for the city’s youth. The organization only has five full-time staff members, but its success relies on the diverse coalition of critical leaders it brings together in its boardroom. As Executive Director Maureen Britton put it: “We cross government, health care, education and business to provide a neutral look at the realities in central Texas and identify potential solutions.”

In our forthcoming book, The Responsive City, Susan Crawford and I offer examples of exceptional strategies for data-smart governance across the country. COH struck us for its use of data visualization as a tool to inform interventions in the city’s youth obesity problem. A Texas law requires public schools to record fitness data on every student. Through data-sharing agreements with the school districts, COH gathers metrics on BMI and cardiovascular fitness scores that are geo-tagged with social and economic information. COH converts de-identified person-level data to aggregate neighborhood-level maps that illuminate the conditions faced by families and children in the area, all while protecting personal information. Enhanced with other data sets, these maps tell a more complex story of the factors that influence health outcomes — from proximity to fast food restaurants to the stress of high neighborhood crime rates.

As the movement to use big data analytics in local government gains momentum, it’s important to keep in mind the primary stakeholders: the city’s individual constituents. COH is successful because it is attuned to this specificity: “The real value is being able to use person-level data in aggregate, to look at very small geographies and by overlaying multiple data sets, give a fuller picture of health and social risk contributors,” Britton explained.

Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation. New businesses are constantly opening, bringing with them many high-skilled workers with high-paying jobs. Britton said rising housing prices have forced lower-income families to the fringes of Austin and worries that these families might fall through the cracks. “There’s not enough attention paid to the struggles in Austin as the population outside of the tech industry grows. That’s our concern,” she said. “The more we bring this data to life through the maps, the more we get data-driven information to the right people.”

Changing the physical education curriculum in schools was never part of the hospital’s business model, just as targeting interventions in existing infrastructure was never part of the school’s strategic plan. COH was created to serve as a neutral ground for these key players, who wouldn’t normally interact with one another but, sitting at the same table, share a desire for real results.

Not only does COH integrate diverse sets of siloed data, its coalition-based model is changing the way that the data is being talked about altogether. This strategy combats critical issues such as poor birth outcomes, transportation-related injuries and youth substance abuse — but the real takeaway is the value of these diplomatic champions of the cause. While political changes in government administrations or swings in the business cycle could slow or stall the efforts of an individual stakeholder, COH streamlines these varied interests into a persistent, collective vision. This isn’t easy. Britton said securing data-sharing agreements can take anywhere from six months to four years — but such persistence is crucial, especially as the maps, over time, disclose potentially predictive information.

Those results matter and send an important message to individuals most in need of services. “You don’t have to know English or have an education to see this and say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s my neighborhood,’” Britton explained. Indeed, it’s hard to argue with a map.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America; The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance; and A New City O/S.