Arming Philadelphia organizations with Data to Change Lives

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

What happens when quality data is put in the hands of changemakers? As Dr. Amy Carroll-Scott shared, “data doesn’t change lives, advocates armed with data do.” Accordingly, Drexel University’s Urban Health Collaborative (UHC) used their expertise as a data intermediary to support the data needs of front-line 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 visualized the areas of Philadelphia that experienced the highest burden of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impacts. Additionally, UHC strengthened a number of partnerships with community-based organizations so that their aggregated data could help support health and housing organizations make data-informed decisions. 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 CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) and drawn from the American Community Survey for Philadelphia’s 384 census tracts. After conducting beta-testing, demos, and other feedback collection processes, UHC tailored the dashboard to include 15 additional indicators to better fulfill data needs of community stakeholders. These additional indicators covered essential workers, worker pay, chronic health conditions, housing insecurity, and access to resources (e.g., high-speed internet, health insurance, SNAP, public assistance). The inclusion of these indicators demonstrated key racial and geographic inequities in the city, for instance, how the distribution of low-wage essential services jobs, like food and hospital work, were concentrated in certain neighborhoods and in Black and Latinx neighborhoods communities of color to COVID-19 and financial insecurity disproportionately.  

One specific application of the dashboard by UHC included a partnership with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Philadelphia, funded by a small grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Both UHC and LISC recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic would likely 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 Eastern North and West Philadelphia. UHC and LISC partnered to construct a separate COVID-19 Affordable Rental Property Assessment dashboard, based off the original dashboard, that mapped the housing and health needs of residents, owners, and buildings in Philadelphia to identify areas and properties most at risk of losing affordable status due to COVID-19 economic pressures. and number of rental units of affordable rental housing properties as indicators, along with average population age, number of essential workers, and mental health indicators. As a result of this work, LISC has used the dashboards in its preservation efforts and to support non-profit building owners to preserve at-risk properties.  

The COVID-19 Vulnerability Indicators data dashboard, because of the breadth of indicators it visualizes and its high usability achieved by tweaking the dashboard with stakeholders, has been successfully used by several other organizations in their COVID-19 response work. For instance, 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 the importance of having a strong data intermediary partner with local stakeholders in the time of crisis. Data by itself cannot address existing inequities in our communities, but advocates and change makers, armed with quality data and the support of a data intermediary like 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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