So Much Data! How to Share the Wealth for Healthier Communities

Jan 14, 2015, 5:15 PM, Posted by

What Counts: Harnessing Data for America's Communities

The world of research and evaluation is experiencing a dramatic increase in the quantity and type of available data for analysis. Estimates are that an astonishing 90 percent of the world’s data has been generated in just the past two years. This flood of facts, figures, and measurements brings with it an urgent need for innovative ways to collect and harness the data to provide relevant information to inform policy and advance social change. “Not long ago, we had a problem of insufficient data,” says Kathryn Pettit, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute. “Today we have more data than ever before, but we still need to build capacity to use it in meaningful ways.”

Pettit is a senior editor of What Counts: Harnessing Data for America’s Communities, a wonderful new book that provides a roadmap for the strategic use of data to reduce poverty and unemployment, expand access to quality education, and build stronger, more resilient communities. Published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Urban Institute, with funding from RWJF, the book features essays from a diverse group of authors on data-driven approaches to community development, ranging from high-level systems change, to practical "how-to" guides, to online tools for communities. An underlying theme is the importance of creating a better data infrastructure by improving the way data is collected and shared across multiple organizations and sectors. The authors share a keen interest in using data to inform evidence-driven policy and interventions that improve the lives of all Americans. That, of course, is also the underlying goal of RWJF’s Culture of Health strategy.

There are many, many excellent essays and ideas in What Counts; space permits me to mention only a few below.

  • Bridget Catlin, at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute describes the County Health Rankings, a national project that uses 34 measures to determine the overall health of every county in all 50 states. The rankings are not just a tool for comparing one county to others across the country; they provide insight into a wide variety of factors that ultimately affect health, such as high school graduation rates, access to healthy food, income, air quality, obesity prevalence, and teen pregnancy. A primary goal of the project, which now includes more than 1 million data points, is to raise awareness of the multiple factors outside the health care system that affect health and vitality. Partnered with RWJF, the rankings are part of a larger effort, Roadmaps to Health, that helps communities identify and pursue local collective actions that can improve health.
  • In her essay, Meredith Minkler, a researcher at University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health, describes community-based participatory research, a model that involves collaborating with community members in both collecting and translating data. The benefit of community-based (vs. “community-placed”) research, according to Minkler, is to increase “the ‘relevance, rigor and reach’” of findings and to better effect change. In one example, academic researchers at the University of Michigan teamed up with members of several community-based organizations in Detroit, training them to be “village health workers.” The health workers went out to low-income neighborhoods in the city and interviewed residents about their personal experience with health care. Information from these interviews was integrated with data collected from a survey of more than 700 low-income residents. Although the survey data showed that most residents were satisfied with their access to care (usually provided by government programs or community-based clinics), the health workers explained to the researchers that many residents were dissatisfied with the quality of their care. Minkler writes that the Detroit example highlights a key value of community-engaged research: It can enable researchers to learn nuances and contextual factors that often go undetected or unmeasured in conventional research approaches. This allows for more informed program recommendations and policy.
  • David Fleming and his co-authors at the Seattle & King County public health department use their essay to provide a “how-to” guide for launching successful multi-sector community development projects that have the long-term goal of improving health indicators. They use the example of a two-year effort in King County, Washington to improve school nutrition and physical activity and reduce obesity in some of the most economically challenged school districts in the county. School administrators, food suppliers, urban planners, small business, and other sectors all collaborated in this effort to reduce childhood obesity. After two years, obesity rates were 17 percent lower in school districts that were part of the project when compared with similar districts that did not participate. The researchers describe the steps taken along the way—collecting data, conducting interim evaluations, measure outcomes—that lead to successful community development projects. In the childhood obesity project, for example, an important interim measure would be to determine if schools were adopting new policies and practices to encourage healthy behavior. How many schools had adopted physical education curriculum? Were cafeterias adhering to healthy food standards? The authors write; “Had no policies changed, then measuring health outcomes [obesity rates] would have been a wasted effort.”

What Counts is a comprehensive volume that will no doubt be an important resource for many practitioners, policymakers, and technical experts involved in reducing poverty and improving lives. As Naomi Cytron, a senior research associate at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and a senior editor of the book puts it, “meaningful social change requires complex interactions among people, institutions, and policies. Data is a common language that can help leaders work together.”

For me, the book is also a great snapshot of a newly evolving area—the extremely promising intersection between broad community development efforts and improving population health. It is through these types of collaborations that we can harness the new flood of data to advance our vision of a Culture of Health.


Alonzo Plough

Alonzo Plough, PhD, MPH, is vice president, Research-Evaluation-Learning and chief science officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Read more from his series.