Subnational Data Innovation Research Blog Series: The Intersection of Data, Equity, and City Governments
Examining findings from the Open Data Policy Lab's City Incubator program
Posted on 15th of June 2022 by Yuki Mitsuda
The Open Data Policy Lab’s City Incubator program was established in September 2021 to help realize the Third Wave of Open Data at the subnational level by building data capacity among city intrapreneurs. In its first iteration, the program supported innovators from ten cities around the world to better use data to address the opportunities and challenges they face.
Reflecting on the six-month program, the work enabled participants to meet the needs of their cities and the people within them. They also revealed shared themes across cities — common challenges and issues that defined urban, data-driven work in the 21st century. This blog explores one of the emerging themes we saw from participants in the City Incubator program: the intersection of equity, data, and city governments.
Our engagements with participants show that equity was central to three of the participants’ considerations. This focus of equity as it relates to data innovation in cities manifested in two ways: the value of equity-driven data projects is determined by the actions cities take based on insights generated, and citizen engagement can facilitate community-driven work toward equity.
Below, we first seek to define what is meant by equity and introduce examples of equity-driven data innovations in action. Subsequently, we consider two pioneering ways equity has been integrated within data innovation projects and aim to show how it is essential for practitioners to pursue these same ideas in their work.
What do we mean by equity in the context of cities and data innovation?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, city governments played a central role in responding to the public health crisis and addressing health inequity. As the Urban Institute notes, the ways the impacts of structural inequalities became visible at city and neighborhood levels forced governments to take action. They needed to address the health, racial, and socioeconomic inequities that resulted in the higher rates of hospitalization and death for disenfranchised populations.
But what do we really mean by equity and what does it entail? Equity has many definitions, yet it generally relates to the work of addressing systemic injustices and creating a fair playing field for all. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Race Equity and Inclusion Action Guide, for example, defines equity as “the state, quality or ideal of being just, impartial and fair.” They distinguish the term from equality, which they characterize as being about ensuring “everyone gets the same things in order to enjoy full, healthy lives.”
This distinction is reflected in how some city governments are conceptualizing equity as an urban issue to address systemic racial, gender, socio-economic, and health inequality, leading to the implementation of equity-driven policies and decisions at a local level. Our City Incubator participants also echoed the significance of this distinction. In our City Incubator cohort, Andrea Calderon, a former Race & Equity Data Analyst in the Office of Equity & Inclusion at the City of Albuquerque, spoke about her focus on equity and how it meant supporting communities facing systemic inequality. She argued that it meant recognizing that not everyone starts at the same place.
Diane Burelle, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Coordinator at the City of Winnipeg, similarly described equity as removing barriers that inhibit the pursuit of opportunity, well-being, and participation in society. She emphasized that Winnipeg’s data innovation work helped them tell a story about existing gaps. Diane further advocated for the value of data storytelling. Its ability to describe who, what, where, and how city governments should allocate resources is vital.
To advance equity, data can be used in a variety of ways such as to measure inequalities, determine goal matrices, and track progress made. Understanding what a city means by equity is essential because it provides clarity on what an organization is trying to achieve and what resources are necessary to move data innovations forward.
Featuring the equity-driven initiative by our City incubators
This work was seen in the City Incubator program’s activities. Three of our city incubator participants designed their data innovations around the ways cities and citizens can use data to measure and improve equity.
- Jennifer Bodnarchuk, a Senior Data Scientist at the Innovation & Technology Department in the City of Winnipeg, for example, led the development of a Diversity Dashboard that quantified and visualized their municipal government’s workforce representation. The tool can be used to measure the level of diversity represented in city-wide employment to move towards equitable hiring in the public sector.
- Henry Xavier Hernandez, the Chief Information Officer at the Information Technology Department in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and his team leveraged the City Incubator to develop Citizen 360, a public market analysis platform that helps businesses, organizations, and individuals identify economic opportunities in the city. This tool can aid small business owners from all backgrounds who are navigating the journey of starting a new business.
- Andrea Calderon led Albuquerque's Equity Index, which helps evaluate the reach of city service distribution with the goal of increasing municipal investment in pockets of the city where equitable city service provision has not yet been achieved. Albuquerque’s Equity Index work entailed assessing air quality in the city through the framework of cumulative impacts, which measures “exposures, public health, or environmental effects from the combined emissions in a geographic area” in pursuit of environmental justice.
Examples of equity-driven data innovations within cities
The use of data for promoting equity is not something unique to the Open Data Policy Lab’s City Incubator. Around the world, cities are using data to shape the narrative on equity. From visualizing spatial inequality to ensuring equitable vaccine allocation, cities and states used data to inform their actions intended to alleviate social and economic disadvantage. While equity is a concern globally, it has become a central issue for cities in the United States. Among various equity-driven data innovations we saw, these are some of the noteworthy examples:
- In New York City, the Social Indicators and Equity Report, or EquityNYC, measures the status of racial and social equity in the city and the city’s work to address existing disparities among a variety of domains such as infrastructure, education, and housing. A newly launched Equitable Development Data Tool informs New Yorkers about fair housing and changing neighborhoods through an interactive resource, providing geospatial indicators like the Displacement Risk Index.
- The City of San José developed a Data Equity Framework, a scalable and sustainable system applicable across all agencies. This framework first sets the equity objective, derives equity metrics from the objective, and then monitors the progress, assessing the ways in which a project can be implemented long-term.
- In response to the pandemic, California launched COVID-19 Equity Metrics that identified the most disproportionately-impacted communities. Other states launched equivalent public-facing interfaces such as Georgia’s COVID-19 Health Equity Dashboard, Massachusetts’ COVID-19 Vaccine Equity Initiative Data Dashboard, and Virginia's Health Equity Dashboard.
From data to actions for equity
Although the development of equity-oriented dashboards and frameworks increases transparency and promotes research, it is only a starting point. As the City incubator participants emphasized, their data innovations came to full fruition by driving insights and creating public value through the facilitation of decision-intelligence, driving data-informed decisions for equity in improving hiring practices, providing assistance to small business owners, and allocating resources. For example:
- The team working on Albuquerque’s Equity Index has an equity assessment tool for each department that evaluates how they are distributing resources and changing practices in marginalized communities according to collected data.
- Similarly, Winnipeg’s practice of goal-setting and benchmarking is meant to hold leadership accountable for their public commitment to take action for better workforce diversity. As Diane said in our interview, “what gets measured gets done” and cities should actively incorporate insights derived from data analyses in making decisions and policies to drive equitable outcomes.
Citizen engagement as a resource in data-driven equity work
When taking actions to advance equity through data innovation, the ways in which city governments engage and empower citizens is also essential. Several participants in the Practitioner Discussion Series of the City Incubator made the case that, equitable citizen engagement should follow a more methodological approach of outlining who, how, when, and why city governments should engage citizens.
- Albuquerque’s work on Equity Index and Cumulative Impacts put citizen engagement as a central aspect of enabling environment equity. Among toolkits that Albuquerque’s Office of Equity and Inclusion developed such as the Practical Guide to Inclusive Community Engagement and Inclusive Communications Guide, Andrea highlighted that the Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership especially helps the team evaluate the level of citizen engagement they are practicing and how they can move towards community ownership — a state in which a project relies on community-driven, participatory decision-making.
- Michelle Melendez, the Director of the Office of Equity & Inclusion, emphasized that equity work involves the “effort to repair the damage caused by city government’s actions and inactions” against marginalized communities, and building trust is an imperative process when leading data innovations.
This piece highlights the challenges and opportunities city governments face when working on equity-driven data innovations, which is one of the emerging trends we saw in the participating cities of the City Incubator program, a 6-month program launched to realize the goal of the Third Wave of Open Data to build data capacity among innovators at the subnational level.
We encourage city leaders and everyone interested in the topic to explore the City Incubator program website, participating cities’ presentations on their initiatives featured on CUSP Research Seminar Series, and other works related to the Third Wave of Open Data.
Special thanks to our interviewees for their time and insights.
Andrea Calderon, a former Race & Equity Data Analyst, Office of Equity & Inclusion, City of Albuquerque, New Mexico, United States of America
Michelle Melendez, Director of the Office of Equity & Inclusion, Office of Equity & Inclusion, City of Albuquerque, New Mexico, United States of America
Jennifer Bodnarchuk, Senior Data Scientist, Innovation & Technology Department, City of Winnipeg, Canada
Justin Dallmann, Data Scientist, Innovation & Technology Department, City of Winnipeg, Canada
Diane Burelle, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Coordinator, City of Winnipeg, Canada,
Henry Xavier Hernandez Rendon, Chief Information Officer, Information Technology Department, City of Guayaquil, Ecuador
David Ponce, Director of Digital Transformation, EPICO Gye
The image at the top of this piece is from John Schnobrich | Unsplash. It is licensed under CC0.