Friday, July 14, 2017

Data Day: Baltimore's latest vital signs

Seema Iyer who runs the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance at the University of Baltimore likes to describe Baltimore as a patient and her data as the information you need in order to make the patient well. "You can't treat for iron deficiency before you know your iron is low" she explains and has compiled "vital signs" reports since 2014 by taking Baltimore's "pulse" with data going back to 2002. Vital signs 15 is the latest edition that came out this year and is based on data from 2015. It can be downloaded here.

BNIA-JFI was born in 2000 after a two-year planning process where several citywide nonprofit organizations, city government agencies, neighborhoods, and foundations were gathered together by the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Since that time, BNIA-JFI has grown to include many more groups and individuals, and more each day have come to consider themselves part of this growing Alliance – this movement toward well-informed decision making for change. BNIA-JFI designed its core functions based on the knowledge that Baltimore needed a common way of understanding how our neighborhoods and overall quality of life are changing over time. (website).
BNIA also conducts an annual Data Day  since 2010 as "an annual workshop to help communities expand their capacity to use technology and data to advance their goals. The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond partners with BNIA-JFI’s Baltimore Data Day to host a panel discussion with community/agency presenters describing available data requiring additional analyses and/or interpretations, followed by a more general discussion of community-academic collaborations. The purpose is to explore how better to improve the health and well-being of Baltimore’s residents through community-academic collaborations."
BNIA's famous maps

As Vital Signs 15 explains in its introduction, a bunch of realities define places as a "structural construct":
Neighborhoods, as a growing body of research shows,2 have extremely durable properties based on the social, cultural and physical realities that define places.
Although people and individuals help shape neighborhoods, their actions occur within the structural construct of history, planning and geography. 
As it has become typical,  Data Day 17 was sold out, "solving endemic problems in our community" as UB Dean Murray Dalziel put it in his welcoming remarks is a hot commodity in Baltimore, a city which continues to be in crisis, the only city on the eastern seaboard which continues to lose population.

Iyer presented several surprise facts to her large audience. Defining neighborhood in the words of Robert Sampson "as durable properties of places based on people, history, geography", something Iyer called a textonomy of place, she pointed out that "zip-code is now more a determinant for health than genetics" and that even neighborhoods with about the same demographics in terms of ethnicity and age can have a 10 year life expectancy difference. The example she used was Clifton Park and Howard Park with the western neighborhood having the better health outcomes. She said that her data show things probably few Baltimoreans expect, such as that Locust Point and South Baltimore now have the highest median home sales price while Roland Park sits on rank #6. Iyer described three overarching goals that would apply for all Baltimore neighborhoods:
A large audience for Data Day #8

1. Supply of housing: 15,000 residents are housing insecure. Baltimore is operating in a housing scarcity market. Just three neighborhoods attract almost all the housing vouchers: Pigtown, Belair Edison and Madison East. The voucher system creates "unintended side effects" she said in that it makes units unaffordable for those holding the vouchers and at the same time depresses housing values for the owners.
The concept of fair market rent demonstration program would change
how vouchers work and where they can be applied

2. Vacant housing: Iyer sees 4% vacancy as a threshold above which vacancy begins to drag a neighborhood down, because nobody will move in. Sandtown Winchester's vacancy rate is much higher and, unfortunately, still growing in spite of millions of dollars spent on rehabilitation. One of the map pairings for which BNIA has become nationally famous, shows two identical looking maps compiled from entirely different sources, the maps for where the most children live and the map where the most vacants are. Certainly not a good harbinger for the future of those children.

3. Access to work. Sandtown also has highest percentage of trips to work exceeding 45 minutes. Iyer speaks of "circulatory problems" and "artrosis" especially on the west side due to lack of access to arteries; she was only half-way in the medical imagery and half in transportation, pointing out the literal absence of a working circulation system.

Iyer, hailing from Philadelphia and having worked initially as the leader of strategic planning in the Baltimore Planning Department, has given up on banking on the big ideas and projects that never seem to come in Baltimore, whether it is the Red Line or State Center or the EBDI project, which only now begins to really take shape with much delay. "Neighborhoods need to know what they can do right now" she exclaimed and the complex data sets she has for each neighborhood can give the pointers.
Two data sources, same result: Vacant properties (left), child density (right)

In the closing session, cautionary notes about data use came from community leaders and Michael Seipp of the Southwest Partnership. Seipp is a seasoned activist and professional for community development. He cautioned that modern data collections one simply clicks at a desk lack the "tactile" dimension. "With modern data processing we don't touch people in the same way as when we had to knock on doors" he observed and added that often times data are used to avoid healthy risk taking. He said "City government abdicated the responsibility of developing plans and visions and neighborhood associations had to step in to fill the void without having the power." As an example of creative risk taking he mentioned the four limited equity co-ops that were created in the city in the seventies as a tool of maintaining affordability and avoiding displacement. "If we had just used data we wouldn't have those four co-ops because  our creativity would have been stifled by data".

Councilman Leon Pinkett told how grocery stores and retailers use data to prove why they don't invest in certain neighborhoods. He mentioned the Health Department as a government unit which uses data in an exemplary manner but stated that data usage is very uneven between City departments. An audience member chimed in with her own warning about data: "Data can be used to control instead of opening the doors. What is the set of values from which we make decisions?" she asked.  Iyer responded that no one set of data will ever present an answer or policy but the look at many sets and that the discovery of unintended consequences such as the problems with the vouchers can help to shape policies.

A brandnew and unique interactive map for Baltimore's art and culture named Geoloom was unveiled at Data Day highlighting the importance of art in Baltimore. A detailed review was written by Cara Ober in today's Bmoreart.
This new map is rooted in the idea that “arts and culture play a significant role in fostering the vitality of a place. Neighborhood-based arts and cultural activity can have an impact on residents’ attachment to their community, the overall economic conditions in their neighborhood, and the quality of life for the entire city. (Geoloom 
Baltimore can be glad to have an institution like BNIA with all the support the institute has from foundations and the private side. It provides a nationally recognized source of information that is unique in its strong community orientation and focus on practical outcomes.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for the detailed write up on Baltimore Data Day. I am cringing at the first line, however! It's not that neighborhoods are "patients". I use the analogy of our physical vital signs so that we remember our neighborhoods are a SYSTEM of activities and forces that require comprehensive approaches to maintaining and changing (just like our own bodies are systems). The data helps us keep track of those multi-variate issues--some of which may not present themselves in obvious ways.

    Also, it's not that I don't think the big projects will come, but we are in a moment when there is great uncertainty about if they will happen. In the meantime, neighborhood leaders are looking for solutions that can work on right now, that are not solely dependent on the big project coming online.

    And last little point, the map image is comparing the maps for vacancy and temporary cash assistance--just to clarify.

    Thanks again for the supportive comments and for attending!