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Study Compares Urban Quality of Life and COVID-19 Rates

Researchers at the University of Chicago explore a local application of the Human Development Index, looking at rates of COVID-19 across neighborhoods and how that can inform public-sector decision-making.

MetroLab Network has partnered with Government Technology to bring its readers a segment called the MetroLab Innovation of the Month Series, which highlights impactful tech, data and innovation projects underway between cities and universities. If you’d like to learn more or contact the project leads, please contact MetroLab at for more information. 

In this month’s installment of the Innovation of the Month series, we explore the University of Chicago's Human Development Index project, designed to examine the intersection of a localized quality-of-life metric and the COVID-19 pandemic. MetroLab’s Ben Levine spoke with Suraj (Neil) Sheth and Luis Bettencourt about the background and development of their project. 

Ben Levine: Can you describe the origin and objective of the Human Development Index project and who has been involved in it?

Suraj (Neil) Sheth: The Human Development Index is the gold standard for measuring people’s quality of life all around the world and is typically calculated at the national level. Each year, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) measures the index to assess changes in the development levels of nations. Since early 2019, Luis Bettencourt and I at the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation have been working toward downscaling the HDI to more local geographies. Our objective is to calculate the Human Development Index for communities, at the neighborhood level. This allows researchers, community leaders and policymakers to link challenges that exist locally in neighborhoods with the study of the nature of development globally. Our goal is to leverage the experience and research that exists about development at the national and international levels to create practical, implementable solutions at the community level and, in time, vice versa.

Levine: How do you measure HDI? How is it different from measuring GDP or other quantitative means of evaluating communities?

Luis Bettencourt: Development is a difficult concept, so it is critical to approach its measurement from a position of principle. There are essentially two frameworks for addressing human development in local communities; we wanted to show that they share much in common, but also to throw new light on this fundamental problem.

The first is the concept of neighborhood effects, which was developed in the U.S. in the context of racial and economic segregation. The second is the human capabilities approach developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, which has been the main framework for appreciating international development and is less tied to economic performance. The capabilities approach refers to our ability to judge the degree to which a society enables its people to lead fulfilled and meaningful lives, while recognizing individual differences in preferences, vocations and needs. It has long roots in moral philosophy, but it is also measurable across scales — from neighborhoods to nations. As an index, it is the geometric mean of three components: the extent to which people live a long and healthy life, their knowledge, and whether they achieve a decent standard of living. These three dimensions are measured by life expectancy, educational attainment and Gross National Income (GNI), adjusted for cost of living. Higher HDI values indicate higher levels of development.

The HDI is still a relatively simple index, but it is much better at characterizing quality of life; it is fundamentally different from measuring GDP alone. It is a more holistic, people-centered approach. It emphasizes the many different things that societies do, not just raw market power and consumption.

Levine: What does HDI teach us about COVID-19? Have any of the results been particularly surprising?

Sheth: Our initial research revealed that there are wide disparities in HDI across the U.S. Some communities are more developed than any nation, while others lag terribly. In April, the UNDP released a report titled COVID-19 and Human Development: Exploring Global Preparedness and Vulnerability, which showed that at the international level, countries with low HDI values were much more vulnerable to the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. We wondered whether this was also true at the local level. Has the pandemic affected communities with low HDI more than those with high HDI values? We found, concerningly, that this indeed is the case. On average, communities with lower HDI values reported higher COVID cases and COVID-related deaths. This is not destiny. There are communities with low HDI that have remained healthy, but this seems to be related to risk: Once the epidemic enters a low-HDI community, the outcomes are much worse.


Human Development Index scores by ZIP code in Chicago and New York City.

There were a few outliers to this trend that illustrate this point. For example, in Chicago, both the Hegewisch and Riverdale communities have relatively low HDI values, yet they also have relatively low numbers of COVID-19 cases. Both communities are located on the far South Side of Chicago, are manufacturing and industrial hubs, and are relatively low-density compared to communities that have a higher number of cases. Similarly, Hunts Point in New York City has a low HDI and a lower number of COVID-19 cases, since it is an Industrial Business Zone with a small residential area. We also found a relatively high number of COVID-related deaths in the relatively affluent Chicago community of Lincoln Park. This is primarily due to a cluster of severe cases at a particular nursing home in the neighborhood.

What technical and strategic challenges did you encounter in this project? How did you address them?

Sheth: In calculating a localized version of an index like the HDI, strategic decisions are required to make the index both locally relevant and scalable to higher levels. For example, we had to decide how to proxy national measures such as Gross National Income via local income data, and how to account for regional differences in purchasing power parity, which is city-specific. Additionally, calculating certain measures such as life expectancy at birth is only possible in communities that have populations in every recorded age cohort. Data is getting better, but our ambition to create an index that applies to every neighborhood in the U.S. exposes some of these weaknesses.

Levine: How can communities in Chicago and across the country use HDI to better respond to COVID-19 and other disasters?

Bettencourt: Overall, our research reveals that the COVID-19 pandemic is not a singular event, and, like any other health challenge, it has a greater impact on communities with low human development and thus also lower life expectancy. Both cases and deaths are higher on average in low-value HDI communities, indicating that these communities may have had underlying vulnerabilities to begin with that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our tentative reading of these statistical results is that there is a mismatch between current policy and the fundamental nature of the problem of vulnerability to a novel epidemic. Responses in times of crisis stress immediate needs related to reducing morbidity and mortality, such as hospital beds and medical equipment. The impacts of the current situation suggest, however, that the best preparation is systemic, via promoting higher levels of local human development before crises hit, so that our resilience in hard times has a solid foundation at all times. This could mean, for example, investing in community health to mitigate the background incidences of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancers. These are risk factors for COVID-19, but they are also associated with premature aging and avoidable loss of years of life in communities with low HDI. This could also mean investing in education and training through improvements to local schools and via nonprofits, raising a community’s understanding of risky behaviors during an epidemic, but also supporting more prosperous and meaningful livelihoods throughout people’s lives.


Neil Sheth discussed the HDI project on ABC News, describing how Chicago communities where essential workers live are being hit hard by COVID-19.

Levine: What are your next steps? Where do you see the project going from here?

Sheth: We are expanding our analysis to more places, to study the impacts of COVID-19 across both urban and rural communities. Moving forward, we also hope to analyze the relationships among the three components of the HDI. Income, education and life expectancy have all been found to be correlated with one another to some extent. By comparing the different components of the HDI across communities in the U.S. and abroad, we can study how strongly these correlations are observed at local scales, and how the correlations differ across neighborhoods. Our work is aimed at helping international organizations achieve the UN’s Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, to create inclusive and equitable communities.

As a mathematical biologist and data scientist studying complex systems, I intend to continue using biomedical informatics and epidemiology to further understand the varied impacts of COVID-19 on local communities and global health overall. As a physician-scientist (M.D.-Ph.D.) in training, in the long term, I am interested in leveraging population health insights from this project for precision medicine interventions using participatory mechanisms, predictive analytics and preventive frameworks.

Bettencourt: We will also be working with University of Chicago research assistants and students to develop maps and visualizations of our HDI findings, and look forward to hearing from the MetroLab Network about what would be most useful for you at

Suraj (Neil) Sheth is an M.D.-Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine in the Interdisciplinary Scientist Training Program. He is also a Doctoral Fellow in Biomedical Informatics, Global Health and Precision Medicine at the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation at the University of Chicago.

Luis M. A. Bettencourt is the inaugural director of the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation and a professor of Ecology and Evolution and Sociology at the University of Chicago. His work studies cities and processes of urbanization as systemic complex systems, synthesizing classical concepts and developing new ones with empirical evidence from around the world.

Lauren Kinkade is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and more than 15 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.