Urban Wire New data can help communities address their health challenges
Corianne Payton Scally, Kathryn L.S. Pettit
Display Date

Media Name: gettyimages-598776275-edit.jpg

Imagine you are part of a local organization that offers diabetes management classes, and you want to expand your services to nearby people most in need of these services. How do you identify the best sites to serve the most people?

Perhaps you work for a city department that distributes resources improving and constructing sidewalks, which help promote walking and can reduce obesity. How can you identify places where sidewalks are more likely to encourage greater community health?

Data highlight public health problems

Recently released 500 Cities data can help communities address public health issues like these by providing estimates for every census tract in each of the 500 largest US cities—at least one in every state. A collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and CDC Foundation, the 500 Cities data provide 27 indicators of unhealthy behaviors, health outcomes, and use of preventive services for adults.

Particularly when mapped, these data can reveal where health problems are most persistent. For example, 500 Cities data can show neighborhood rates of adult diabetes or how obesity rates intersect with a lack of leisure time physical activity. Disparities between neighborhoods can be identified to help target health interventions and services to those whose conditions most demand them.

Community engagement is essential

Access to data is helpful, but it’s only part of the solution. To move from observation to action, stakeholders need to come together to decipher what the data show and determine a context-sensitive strategy to move forward. Hosting a local or regional event is one way to jump-start these conversations and build community capacity to use the 500 Cities data.

As described in our new guide, a community event can bring diverse stakeholders together to develop a shared agenda, language, and data literacy around improving health and to advance actions to do so. People who may have never been in the same room can look at the same data, come to a shared understanding of the issues residents face, and generate new ideas for advancing community health and reducing disparities.

Many types of organizations could organize local 500 Cities events, including public health departments, applied university centers, health coalitions, United Ways, and community-based organizations. To encourage groups like these to host events, our guide provides suggestions for formulating goals, identifying an appropriate format for bringing people together, and making sure the people most affected are involved in interpreting the data and generating place-based approaches for addressing disparities.

People are already using 500 Cities data, to promising results

Many events are being organized across the country using the 500 Cities data to engage communities and take action to improve local health. Local YMCAs have pulled together various stakeholders using the 500 Cities data to identify and address concentrations of adult health issues.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Data You Can Use has highlighted the 500 Cities data across city neighborhoods at two events. In March, it hosted a data workshop with neighborhood and health partners to review several new data resources and what they showed about neighborhood health. The event highlighted how the city fared worse than the state and the nation across several 500 Cities indicators and examined disparities between city neighborhoods. For example, while Milwaukee as a whole had lower binge-drinking rates (21.4 percent) on average than the state or nation, individual census tracts had rates ranging from 4.8 percent to 35.3 percent.  

In May, Data You Can Use hosted its annual Data Day, where it displayed the Milwaukee maps by census tract for every 500 Cities indicator on a wall. This allowed participants to see all the data across all neighborhoods at once and realize the need for coordinated action to reduce disparities.

500 Cities data provide a valuable opportunity to mobilize communities toward improving their health. If you bring your neighborhood or city together to explore health disparities using the 500 Cities data, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation would love to hear about it.


Tune in and subscribe today.

The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Health and health care
Tags Community-based care Public health Social determinants of health
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
Related content