Earlier this month I traveled to Atlanta to the Spring meeting of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP). The partnership, led by the Urban Institute, brings together organizations that serve as data intermediaries from cities across the country to share best practices, collaborate, develop tools for data democratization, and advocate locally and nationally for data-informed decision-making. The participants at the meeting represented three-dozen partner organizations hailing from Seattle to Miami, Boston to Los Angeles and everywhere in between. Each NNIP partner organization is diverse in regards to their staff size, budget, and focus areas, however, any organization that routinely works with data has faced the same sorts of challenges and opportunities. Data intermediaries are continually working to collect, store, document, analyze, and communicate data and each step in processing data can come with its own set of challenges. We here at the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance-Jacob France Institute (BNIA-JFI) currently have datasets spanning many years, in some cases back to 2000, and we now create about 150 indicators from over 50 different data sources for 55 Community Statistical Areas. Storing and accessing data of this magnitude can be challenging, and we’re continually looking for ways to improve our data libraries.
This year’s NNIP meeting focused on how projects like ours can better collaborate with libraries and library staff. As part of a pre-workshop to the meeting, on Tuesday, May 8th, I had the opportunity to participate in a workshop hosted by Civic Switchboard along with Fatemeh Rezaei from the Langsdale Library here at the University of Baltimore. This workshop allowed us to think through ways that we can collaborate to improve our data libraries and supplement archival information. My favorite activity was a hands-on sketching exercise of the BNIA-JFI/Langsdale ecosystem where we attempted to map out all of the folks and organizations we partner with and ways that we communicate our work. We recently went through a strategic planning process in 2017 (more about that in a moment), including a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis and the ecosystem mapping project almost felt like a complementary exercise.
The following day marked the start of the official NNIP conference which was kicked off with fantastic presentations and discussions around residential instability and a series of presentations about equity in Atlanta from Neighborhood Nexus, the local NNIP data intermediary, as well as folks from the Arthur Blank Foundation, Laureus Sports Foundation, Atlanta BeltLine, and the Atlanta Department of Planning. These discussions were followed with a set of three concurrent neighborhood tours, of which I attended a bus tour of the Westside. I learned a good deal about the work that is going on in the area and its Promise Zone designation. These opportunities to hear from the hosts and local organizers and community groups are my favorite part of NNIP conferences- I love being able to get out and explore neighborhoods and think about ideas and strategies that I could take back to Baltimore.
What struck me as interesting about the Westside tour was the scale of community assets in the area- the neighborhoods were served by two MARTA rail stations, were home to numerous places of worship, as well as several colleges and universities: Spelman College, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine, Clark Atlanta University (the four of which comprise the Atlanta University Center Consortium), and Morris Brown College, all historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). On my tour I heard mention of new residential investment through construction of new single family homes and we saw recently constructed multi-family apartment complexes and a senior living center. I am very curious to see how the neighborhood will continue to change over the next few years and I plan to learn more about some of the initiatives going on in the area around community building, mentoring, and personal development.
The second day of the conference was a thought-provoking day, mostly in part to an afternoon discussion on racial equity lead by Julie Nelson from Race Forward/Center for Social Inclusion. It was a much-needed opportunity to think about how researchers frame neighborhood issues and the ways that we knowingly and unknowingly can perpetuate biases through how we construct research strategies and communicate findings. It was a reminder that good intentions can have painful consequences when we researchers don’t take the time to listen to a community’s wants and needs. It is my understanding that the next NNIP meeting in October 2018 will revisit this much needed topic.
Seema Iyer, associate director for the Jacob France Institute, gave a presentation that highlighted BNIA-JFI’s 2017 strategic planning process, focusing on our goals for the next three years. The planning process itself was conducted over several weeks and featured two internal staff discussions about our wants and needs and we also solicited feedback from our steering committee. Seema’s presentation is available online and is a good resource for others looking to figure out how to stay relevant in a world where data is rapidly becoming open and accessible.
One of the great things about the NNIP meetings is the “unconference” format, which allows participants to submit discussion topics and have unstructured group conversations. I attended three “unconference” discussion sessions. The first session focused on around justice datasets. My interest in the topic comes from our involvement with the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation work in McElderry Park in Baltimore (we served as an embedded research partner from 2013-2016) and from our role in communicating neighborhood context data in 2015 during the period of civil unrest. We discussed data availability and participants shared stories on how their criminal justice datasets are analyzed and projects they are involved in. Some of the resources I learned about include the Center for Policing Equity and Measures for Justice.
The second “unconference” session I attended is an NNIP tradition, known as the “Airing of Grievances”. It’s an opportunity for us to complain in a safe, neutral space about what ails us- misrepresented data in the media, competition from for-profit businesses, surviving in a tough business climate, and more.
The third and last “unconference” session I attended focused on community data trainings and figuring out ways to measure data literacy. It’s a topic that we at BNIA-JFI are very much interested in and it’s a goal that we specifically outlined in our 2017 strategic plan. As the organization provides trainings to residents and other neighborhood stakeholders we want to ensure that our training methods are comprehensive, understandable, and people walk away with a greater sense of understanding of how they can use metrics to set goals, ensure accountability from City agencies, and write grants.
While in Atlanta it occurred to me that it was my eighth time attending an NNIP conference. My first opportunity to meet the network was in Baltimore, nearly a decade ago, when we hosted the conference for the first time. I also had the privilege to learn from my peers in Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, Indianapolis, and as we hosted again in Baltimore in May 2017. These opportunities to hear about new and exciting research, to network, collaborate, and brainstorm are incredibly valuable. I thank the Urban Institute team for hosting these conferences and allowing me to learn so much from the network!