This FUSE-produced story was originally published on CityLab as “The Human Faces of Data.”
Data can present stark examples of racial disparities in communities, but the policymakers charged with devising solutions are often learning about these challenges in reports loaded with numbers and charts.
Without additional context, they are missing an important step in the process. Local governments need to seek out the stories behind the numbers, look at what’s happening in real time, respond quickly and partner with the community. Data alone can’t reveal the causes of racial disparities in transportation, policing and many other municipal services. Listening to people affected by policies and understanding their daily experiences are paramount to arriving at effective solutions that truly serve them.
FUSE Corps, a nonprofit that partners with local governments, spoke with equity and inclusion advisers to identify what leaders can do to put faces to the numbers and further racial equity within their cities and counties.
Using real-time data
When the pandemic and civil unrest created disruptions to transit in Minneapolis, the city turned to real-time data on where scooters were located to ensure they were accessible to low-income residents who relied on them for the last-mile connectivity to social services.
“I see that right now there are 800 scooters on the street, and I know exactly where they are,” said Danielle Elkins, a FUSE Corps fellow who worked in the transportation department of Minneapolis last summer. “So, we can decide: Are the scooter companies placing the scooters in the neighborhoods that we’ve asked them to? Are they meeting our equity requirements that say no more than 40% can be in downtown and high-income areas?”
The city moved to create geography-based equity targets for scooter companies because it understood the story behind the data of who was — and was not — using scooters and why. The first year scooters were on the streets, the data revealed that companies were placing them predominantly in affluent or popular areas. The places with a glaring absence of scooters were neighborhoods with more concentrated poverty, and with historically Black, Latino, African-refugee or Indigenous residents.
“Part of our equity work is in helping our organization to understand the significance of qualitative data, and, on the flip side, also helping the community to understand the value of their voice.” – Karla Bruce, Chief Equity Officer, Fairfax County, VA
Through talking with residents and conducting user surveys at the mobility hubs in these neighborhoods, Minneapolis was able to counter companies’ claims that people in certain neighborhoods wouldn’t ride the bikes and scooters. “We knew from data and speaking with residents that if the bikes and scooters made it to those locations, they were used a lot,” Elkins said. “So when the scooter companies gave us an excuse of, ‘No one over there is going to use them,’ we were able to counter with, ‘The data says otherwise.’”
Stories behind the data
Data analysis on its own can be useful, but unless it is combined with human stories, it often tells just part of the story. “We’ve been trained to follow the numbers,” said Karla Bruce, chief equity officer for Fairfax County, Virginia. “But I think a part of our equity work is in helping our organization to understand the significance of qualitative data, and, on the flip side, also helping the community to understand the value of their voice.”
Bruce recommends embedding community interaction into the process, including involving residents in the interpretation of data. Usually data analysis and interpretation are viewed as the domain of experts, but Bruce says community input works.
She cites the county’s work to improve outcomes for families interacting with the juvenile justice system. Fairfax engaged the Center for the Study of Social Policy, a nonprofit organization focused on child welfare and family support systems, to deepen their understanding of the situational issues and challenges.
In addition to working with the staff of the juvenile justice system, CSSP involved staff from the police force and schools. They also trained staff to interview people with lived experiences, such as the families of people who were involved with the system.
Those conversations revealed impediments to complying with monitoring and support services: One mother said that she had missed the psycho-neurological evaluation appointments for her son because she often got lost when travelling to unfamiliar places due to documented cognitive limitations; another parent said she had trouble getting an appointment with her son’s counselor that fit with a work schedule that had her away from home from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week; other families missed appointments because they were constantly changing their address and phone because of the fear of deportation.
“When you’re able to connect stories from multiple people to see they’ve all encountered the same barrier, it gives you a picture of where in the process or system that you’re having these issues.” – Brion Oaks, Chief Equity Officer, Austin, TX
These lived experiences became “a respected part of the protocol of the process,” said Bruce, who noted the importance of helping people “on the inside” understand that community voices are just as relevant as numbers.
Brion Oaks, chief equity officer for Austin, Texas, also encourages policymakers to go out in the community, listen to people’s stories, and then figure out how that correlates to institutional data.
“When you engage the community, you often hear individual stories about a family’s experience,” Oaks said. “But it takes hearing that story maybe two or three times from different families to start to understand the connection of how it plays out systemically. Then you start to identify patterns. When you’re able to connect stories from multiple people to see they’ve all encountered the same barrier, it gives you a picture of where in the process or system that you’re having these issues.”
Austin created an Equity Action Team (EAT), a group of individuals from the community who provide input into how to make policies more equitable. More than 200 community members have been involved in the process. Unlike many government commissions and task forces, the EAT is open to anyone — as long as they are committed to advancing racial equity.
“We had so many people that wanted to be a part of this that we just opened the doors to say, ‘If you’re interested, come on, and we’ll work together,’” Oaks said. “It may take us a little longer to get things done because we have so many voices, but we’re okay with that, because it’s a collective.”
Photo Credit: Flickr