The blog of the Urban Institute
December 6, 2021

How Can Local Leaders Use Data to Promote Equity?

In the hands of community members, data can be a tool to advance local priorities by illuminating racial inequities, building consensus among stakeholders, and advocating for shifts in policies and resources. But making this vision a reality requires philanthropy, action coalitions, government agencies, and research organizations to center equity—as both an outcome and a process—in data use.

For the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership’s (NNIP’s) 25th anniversary, NNIP and the Urban Institute cohosted a virtual event about the future of community data use. The event featured a conversation between Angela Glover Blackwell, founder in residence at PolicyLink, Lisa Hamilton, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Sarah Rosen Wartell, Urban's president. Below, we highlight some of their insights about using data to advance racial equity.

Use data to shape the narrative on equity  

Blackwell explained that stakeholders need to use data, like those included in the National Equity Atlas, to tell a powerful story about racial equity being the key to the nation’s vitality and economic success. “We haven’t used the data… to expand the numbers of people who want to make change,” she said. “[They] haven’t yet been given a narrative that they feel comfortable with.”

Hamilton added that disaggregation of data by race and place is critical to identifying the best strategies to break down systemic barriers and advance equity.

Develop and use data in collaboration with community members and advocates

The panelists discussed how, too often, philanthropy, local government, and nonprofits collect and use data without community members’ involvement. This results in both ineffective efforts and distrust by communities. Philanthropy can play a key role in promoting and building community-centered engagement with data. 

Hamilton explained how the Casey Foundation’s Evidence2Success framework promotes collaboration between school systems and communities to collect data from young people, review the data together, and make collective decisions about investments.

Advocates also need to continue to work closely with community members to identify what data are relevant to their priority issues and how communities want to be portrayed, according to the panelists. Researchers should partner with advocates and community members to ensure data and insights will be useful to and respectful of the people represented in the data.

Measure what we treasure

Advancing equity with data means placing greater emphasis on measuring the positive, including community assets and areas of strength. Hamilton said, “So often, [assets are] the place we need our investments to be going. And if we could see where they exist and how they need to be expanded, I think we could do a lot more in that regard.”

Changing what stakeholders measure will require new resources from philanthropy and the public sector to develop innovative data sources and improve public data collection.

Demand transparency and equity in advanced applications of data

Many aspects of people’s lives—from the jobs they are offered to the homes they rent or buy—are affected by automated decisionmaking systems or algorithms.

Hamilton shared that the Casey Foundation formed a point of view centering children and families in the use of advanced analytics. As the brief explains, to be beneficial and equitable, these tools must expand opportunity, provide transparency and evidence, empower communities, and promote equitable outcomes. 

Build an understanding of systems

Typically, measuring inequities has focused on the disparities in individual outcomes between groups. This approach leads to solutions that target individual behaviors, and it fails to point out the systemic barriers and challenges that result from structural racism.

Blackwell said, “We can say that African American families can’t get loans to buy homes. But we could look at some data that’s saying banks refuse to give loans to Black families that are trying to start out—so now that we have a notion of what it means for racism to be systemic and structural and baked in—we need to start measuring that. And if we start measuring that, we can tell a powerful story about what’s wrong.”

Using data to describe systems will also help advocates, researchers, philanthropists, and policymakers better understand what interventions are required to reduce inequities.

As directors of NNIP, a learning network with a shared mission to ensure communities have access to data and the skills to use information to advance equity and well-being across neighborhoods, this conversation inspired us to continue to push ourselves and our network to improve our data practices and focus on supporting equitable outcomes.


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(Illustration by Brittney Spinner for the Urban Institute)

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