Better Data. Better Decisions. Better Communities.
Kathryn Pettit, Senior Research Associate, Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
22 August 2013
“Neighborhood indicators” are clues, a measure of a community’s health. Births, housing, jobs, student test scores—each one is part of a complex picture. But finding the relevant indicators can be incredibly difficult for community organizations and even local government agencies. When local governments open up their data, community partners can then begin to work together with agency officials to understand the facts on the ground and tackle local challenges.
The National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) was founded on this premise. NNIP is a collaboration between the Urban Institute and local organizations in more than three dozen cities across the county. The local NNIP members do the job of scrubbing, organizing, and publishing indicators and analysis of raw local government data, and then work with others towards a variety of goals, such as preserving affordable housing, promoting open space, or keeping kids in school. NNIP organizations translate technical information so that local leaders can make clear, effective, evidence-based decisions. And the data they collect feed into a central system that becomes a valuable long-term resource for the whole community.
The partners’ organizations are independently operated and may be nonprofits, university centers, or other local institutions. They share a common aim of helping residents and organizations in low-income neighborhoods use information to have a voice in planning and decisionmaking.
To accomplish their goals, partners work with a wide range of data and play many different roles. For example, several partners help to connect civic hackers interested in working with open data to community groups that could potentially benefit from the developed apps. Other issues require sensitive data that are not appropriate for open data portals, such as student-level attendance data. In this case, data are shared with the NNIP partners under strict protections, who then use the data to create relevant neighborhood indicators without any release of private information.
One Success Story: Mitigating Foreclosure in Washington, D.C.
NNIP partner NeighborhoodInfo DC’s work exemplifies using data to help address a community problem. Since 2008, experts from NNIP partner NeighborhoodInfo DC have provided nonprofits and government agencies in the District of Columbia with the data they need to understand how the foreclosure crisis affects city residents and neighborhoods. One key challenge was timely outreach to struggling homeowners and renters, who often do not know about their legal rights or assistance programs. For example, city law protects renters from being evicted in the event of a foreclosure, but many renters may be unaware of this. In addition, the DC government funds organizations to provide free housing counseling to residents, including those facing foreclosure, but owners may be reluctant to seek help. And troubled homeowners are vulnerable to scam artists who promise assistance in exchange for large fees, but then disappear.
Everyone recognized the community’s need for better data, but the city government’s data files on property transactions and characteristics and foreclosures are siloed and difficult to link together. In order to meet this need, NeighborhoodInfo DC began to regularly combine several sources of property-level data from the city into an easy-to-read spreadsheet with just the fields of interest to the housing advocates and agency officials. Each week, NeighborhoodInfo DC sends the list of households entering foreclosure the previous week to three government agencies and eight local nonprofit organizations. With this data, housing counselors can precisely target their outreach efforts, advising against foreclosure rescue scams and offering help to figure out the best options for the family. The DC Office of the Tenant Advocate uses the weekly lists to send letters that explain tenants’ rights when their landlord enters foreclosure or loses their property, and what to do if they are faced with that situation. Thanks to NeighborhoodInfo DC, the city and its nonprofit partners are able to give early warnings to hundreds of troubled homeowners and vulnerable renters. For more details, see the brief Foreclosure Tracking in Washington, DC.
The Network: Sharing the Lessons
NNIP’s mission has always been to democratize data: make it easy to understand, make it accessible, and then help local stakeholders apply it to solve the problems facing their communities. Currently funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, we at the Urban Institute coordinate the network and help NNIP partners learn from each other and uncover new ways to revitalize neighborhoods and improve lives. The network also carries out cross-site action projects in several cities to dive into topics such as prisoner reentry or school readiness. NNIP staff also advise other cities interested in bringing the NNIP model to their city.
The #LocalGov Technology Alliance is an Esri-ICMA initiative to explore the world of big data, open data, apps and dashboards, and what it all means for local governments. For more resources to help navigate the complex world of technology, go to icma.org/localgovtechalliance.
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