Arming Philadelphia Organizations with Data to Change Lives

Author: Sonia Torres Rodríguez
Date Posted: July 22, 2021

What happens when quality data are put in the hands of changemakers? As Amy Carroll-Scott shared, “Data doesn’t change lives, advocates armed with data do.” Drexel University’s Urban Health Collaborative (UHC) used their expertise as a data intermediary to support the data needs of frontline practitioners, community-based organizations, and city agencies and elected officials during the COVID-19 crisis.

The Urban Health Collaborative (UHC) and the West Philly Promise Neighborhood created an accessible COVID-19 Vulnerability Indicators data dashboard that visualizes where in Philadelphia people were disproportionately burdened by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impacts. Additionally, the UHC strengthened partnerships with community-based organizations so their aggregated data could help health and housing organizations make data-informed decisions. The UHC prioritized building a dashboard with an iterative approach that sought extensive feedback from community partners and stakeholders in the health and housing space.

Initially, 28 indicators were chosen from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index and drawn from the American Community Survey for Philadelphia’s 384 census tracts. After beta testing, demos, and other feedback collection, the UHC tailored the dashboard to include 15 additional indicators to better represent community stakeholders’ needs. These additional indicators covered essential workers, worker pay, chronic health conditions, housing insecurity, and access to resources, such as high-speed internet, health insurance, public assistance, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Including these indicators demonstrated key racial and geographic inequities in the city, such as the concentration of low-wage, essential services jobs, like food and hospital work, in certain neighborhoods like Black and Latinx communities.

The UHC included a partnership with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Philadelphia, funded by a small grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Both the UHC and LISC recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic would exacerbate the critical shortage of affordable rental housing for people and families with lower incomes, particularly in Black communities and other communities of color in east, north, and west Philadelphia. The UHC and LISC partnered to construct a separate COVID-19 Affordable Rental Property Assessment dashboard, based on the original dashboard, that mapped the housing and health needs of residents and maintenance needs of buildings in Philadelphia to identify areas and properties most at risk of losing affordable status because of the pandemic’s economic pressures. As a result of this work, LISC has used the dashboards to help nonprofit building owners preserve at-risk properties.

Because of the breadth of indicators and community input, the COVID-19 Vulnerability Indicators data dashboard has been successfully used by several organizations in their COVID-19 response. A West Philadelphia elementary school used the dashboard to provide their staff with contextual data to inform their student support services. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health used the dashboard to examine which neighborhoods were likely to have experienced disproportionate disruptions in city services. And the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia used it to prioritize COVID-19 tests to patients from vulnerable communities.

The Urban Health Collaborative’s work demonstrates how important a strong data intermediary partner is for local stakeholders during a crisis. Data alone cannot address inequities in our communities, but advocates and changemakers, armed with quality data and the support of a data intermediary like the UHC, can begin to make progress.

This story was written by Sonia Torres Rodríguez at the Urban Institute, with the support of the UHC and LISC team. Drexel University’s Urban Health Collaborative is the Philadelphia Partner in the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, a learning network in 30 cities coordinated by the Urban Institute. All Partners ensure communities have access to data and the skills to use information to advance equity and well-being across neighborhoods. 

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