Advocacy and Policy Change with Data

Integrating Data to Improve Child Well-Being
Analysis from a state-of-the-art multiagency data system reveals new insights to bring sectors together and motivate policy change for children’s health.

Supporting Resident Advocacy with Data
Residents collect data to shape the narrative about their community and strengthen their advocacy efforts against inequitable policies.

Using Data to Advocate for Safer Walking Conditions
Community-based data collection supports advocacy for neighborhood investment.

Putting Data to Work for Community Health
Investment in new national data and a pilot for communities to use them strengthens local cross-sector collaborations.

Improving Local Policy with Integrated Data
A multicity grant program advances local innovations in integrated data use and yields lessons for the broader field in topics ranging from absenteeism to civic engagement.


Integrating Data to Improve Child Well-Being

Analysis from a state-of-the-art multiagency data system reveals new insights to bring sectors together and motivate policy change for children’s health.

Integrated data systems have expanded to more places over the past decade, leveraging more communities’ capacities to create innovative data resources. These systems link administrative data at the individual level from multiple government agencies—such as education, juvenile justice, and human services—and sometimes from nonprofit service providers.

Since 1999, the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development (the Poverty Center) at Case Western Reserve University has received funding from various government agencies and foundations to develop the CHILD data system, an integrated data system that links government and nonprofit data for all children in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded the Poverty Center a grant in late 2013 to use the database to investigate where children live, what their exposure to lead may be, and how these factors affect children’s readiness for school.

The analysis showed that living in housing units that are poor quality, tax delinquent, owned by speculators, or in foreclosure leads to lower literacy scores for kindergartners, creating achievement gaps before children enter school. Living in such homes is associated with a high risk of elevated blood lead levels, child maltreatment, and residential instability, which all influence literacy scores. Building on this evidence, the Mt. Sinai Health Care, George Gund, Saint Luke’s, and Bruening Foundations supported additional analyses to identify which houses and neighborhoods posed the greatest risks and to track the downstream costs of lead poisoning into early adulthood.

In response to the Poverty Center’s findings and advocacy organizations’ efforts, the city of Cleveland began changing its approach to addressing lead exposure. Previously, the city took public action only after a child had tested positive for elevated blood lead levels. The city now requires that every rental property pass a lead inspection every two years. The city also formed the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition to support lead safety through education, technical assistance, and provision of resources to make housing safe from lead.

Cleveland schools responded to the report by increasing lead screening and training school psychologists to recognize the effects of lead poisoning. Disciplinary procedures were changed to limit punishments, such as suspensions, that negatively affect children with high exposure to lead in favor of approaches that bolster social-emotional skills.

The Poverty Center demonstrated that housing policy has a significant impact on early childhood development and must be a focus for early childhood advocates and public-school officials. The Poverty Center continues producing new analyses that ensure community stakeholders have the information needed to improve housing and reduce childhood exposure to lead.

Elements of this story are drawn from an earlier Poverty Center report and National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership story. Thanks to Claudia Coulton for her review.


Supporting Resident Advocacy with Data

Residents collect data to shape the narrative about their community and strengthen their advocacy efforts against inequitable policies.

With support from the Vitalyst Health Foundation, two areas of Phoenix—Maryvale and South Phoenix—are using data and research to change police-community relationships and reform the criminal justice system. As part of the foundation’s investments to increase civic participation in Phoenix, Vitalyst funded a community-based participatory action research project to investigate how police interactions and discriminatory laws affect the health of Maryvale and South Phoenix residents.

Building community data capacity is central to the community-based participatory action research approach. The project kicked off in 2018, with Vitalyst giving a grant to a nonprofit organization trusted by the Maryvale and South Phoenix communities to support the process. In collaboration with a researcher selected by the communities, the people living in Maryvale and South Phoenix are leading the project, designing data collection tools, conducting door-to-door surveys, and taking an active role in analyzing data. Residents are compensated for their time and work. The project’s goal is to survey 12,000 residents about the health impacts of police interactions and discriminatory laws by the end of 2020. Community residents will be involved in the data analysis and can use the findings to strengthen advocacy efforts with elected officials and local funders. Vitalyst anticipates supporting these advocacy efforts by providing leadership training for residents.

By leading each phase of the research process, Maryvale and South Phoenix residents are building data capacity that will benefit the community into the future. Residents will have new skills that can help them work with research partners and use data to change systems that affect their health.

Many thanks to C.J. Eisenbarth Hager for sharing insights about Vitalyst’s efforts to build data capacity to support community action.


Using Data to Advocate for Safer Walking Conditions

Community-based data collection supports advocacy for neighborhood investment.

Between 2010 and 2017, 149 people were killed or injured while walking in the Gulfton neighborhood of Houston. These dangerous pedestrian conditions limited the ability of residents of the majority-immigrant community to safely get to school, work, or places for exercise. The city recognized the need for improvements and designated Gulfton as one of Houston’s Complete Communities, a mayor’s initiative to ensure that neighborhoods have equitable access to quality services and amenities. To address these issues and make the case for new investments, community groups in Gulfton collaborated with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University to organize an audit of the neighborhood’s pedestrian conditions in the summer and fall of 2018. The Houston Endowment's three-year grant for their Urban Development, Placemaking, and Transportation program supported this research effort. 

To complete the audit, community leaders, citizen volunteers, and Kinder staff and students participated in neighborhood walks to assess the availability and conditions of sidewalks, bikeways, street lighting, and buildings. Researchers found that 36 percent of the area’s street segments lacked sidewalks, and 41 percent of existing sidewalks were obstructed by gaps, parked cars, and overgrown trees or shrubs. 

Researchers shared the report with the city agencies and the community, and Gulfton residents included the study in their revitalization plan released in late 2018. Community organizations and residents continued to advocate for investments to make their neighborhood safer.

From these community-driven advocacy and data insights, the mayor selected Gulfton as the first neighborhood for the first phase of the Houston Safer Streets program, a collaboration between the city of Houston and a coalition of private companies called Together for Safer Roads (TSR), in April 2019. As part of the Safer Streets program, TSR provided $125,000 in resources to support a community-based planning effort and a transportation-related STEM education program. In addition, Houston Public Works committed $500,000 for improvements such as signals at pedestrian crossings on their major corridor, wider sidewalks, new curbs, and delineated bike safety lanes. TSR and Kinder are working to assess the project’s progress toward making walking and biking safer for Gulfton residents.

This article is based on Kinder’s report on walking and biking infrastructure in Gulfton, a blog post about the Safer Streets program, and an interview with Jie Wu, Kinder’s director of research management.


Putting Data to Work for Community Health

Investment in new national data and a pilot for communities to use them strengthens local cross-sector collaborations.

Through its Putting Data to Work project, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has championed the use of data for cities across the nation. The 500 Cities Data Challenge, part of the Putting Data to Work project, created access to data and funded improving local organizations’ capacities to use the data. The foundation partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the CDC Foundation to produce census tract–level estimates for chronic disease risk factors, health outcomes, and clinical preventive service use in the largest 500 US cities. This allows communities to identify inequities in health outcomes and prioritize issues across neighborhoods. For example, in Dallas, a nationwide convening was held to educate 300 participants about the new estimates and foster peer learning through large- and small-group sessions.

The Putting Data to Work project also supported the Urban Institute in publishing a guide to using the data for community events and in administering a $1 million grant competition that funded groups in 10 cities to develop and share insights from the data to (1) encourage cross-sector collaborations and (2) design innovative solutions for social factors that influence community health outcomes. In 2018–19, these grantees used the data to address air quality, affordable housing, climate change, noise pollution, and public transportation.

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health, in partnership with the Drexel Urban Health Collaborative, combined the 500 Cities data with other local health data, producing neighborhood-level health rankings to inform targeted public health efforts. And in Houston, Air Alliance Houston started a significant public dialogue about a proposed local highway expansion through their analysis of 500 Cities indicators.

Also through the Putting Data to Work project, RWJF supported the creation of the United States Small-Area Life Expectancy Estimates Project, which produced estimates of life expectancy for all census tracts. To inspire communities to leverage that data, RWJF started Visualizing and Powering Healthy Lives, a $2 million grant initiative that funds 10 projects across the US using the data to highlight how communities can address health disparities. With the funding, DataHaven in New Haven, Connecticut, has combined data analysis and resident-driven video storytelling to advocate for increased resources for data-backed strategies that can reduce health inequities.

We appreciate the review and input of Keely Hanson of the Urban Institute for this story.


Improving Local Policy with Integrated Data

A multicity grant program advances local innovations in integrated data use and yields lessons for the broader field in topics ranging from absenteeism to civic engagement.

In 2013, the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) launched a three-year, cross-site project, supported by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, to leverage an innovative and underused data source to address local challenges.

The Connecting People and Place project aimed to increase access to information in integrated data systems for local policy and enhance those systems with data on neighborhoods. An integrated data system links individual-level records from different government agencies on a regular basis. Foundations can support the development of these systems in their communities and promote expanding their use to address local issues.

The project, completed in spring 2016, connected the agencies and universities managing integrated data systems to NNIP partner organizations that understood neighborhood conditions and local policy questions. The six participating NNIP partners each designed a site-specific project on a wide range of policy issues, from homelessness to chronic absenteeism from school to civic engagement. They teamed up with an integrated data system host to exchange information, ideas, and expertise while analyzing their policy issue.

The Urban Institute coordinated the project and led the cross-site synthesis and dissemination. The lessons learned apply to all communities. Overall, the project demonstrated that

  • local program planning and monitoring can be improved through greater access to information available from integrated data systems;
  • data on housing and neighborhood conditions can enhance analysis of information about people in integrated data systems;
  • community data organizations like NNIP partners can add valuable perspectives to policy discussions; and
  • NNIP partners and the organizations that host integrated data systems should continue to develop long-term relationships.