The 500 Cities Project: New Data for Better Health

Feb 23, 2017, 12:00 PM, Posted by

For the first time ever, the CDC and CDC Foundation are providing city and neighborhood level data for 500 of the largest U.S. cities, making it possible to identify emerging health problems and effective interventions.

A man holds his child.

Old Colony YMCA in Brockton, Massachusetts recently discovered something startling: a single neighborhood more burdened by poor health such as asthma, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol than surrounding areas. Most surprising, however, was that this particular area had a lower prevalence of unhealthy behaviors like binge drinking than other locations within Brockton.

In the past, public health officials may have expended limited resources on the entire Brockton metropolitan area because they wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint the specific neighborhood facing the spike and determine why it was happening.

Brockton’s experience illustrates how instrumental data on small geographic areas is in designing effective approaches to addressing health needs within a community. Thanks to the 500 Cities Project, a first-of-its-kind data resource from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and CDC Foundation, Brockton officials were able to learn about their community’s health at a level of detail never seen before: the Census tract (defined as subdivisions of a county, averaging around 4000 people). 

Knowing where a community thrives or suffers is essential to addressing poor health and efficiently utilizing resources to ensure everyone has the opportunity to lead healthier lives.

Diagnosed diabetes map
Lack of health insurance map

The 500 Cities Project

Data on the largest 500 Cities in the nation are available now, via map and data books at the 500 Cities site. But beginning March 2, an interactive website will give anyone—from public health stakeholders to curious residents—the ability to retrieve, visualize, and explore uniformly-defined city and census tract-level data for the 500 largest U.S. cities. [Editors Update December 17, 2019: Data for 2019 has been added to the CDC’s interactive 500 Cities Project website.]

This collaboration between the CDC, the CDC Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, provides analysis of 27 chronic disease measures, health outcomes, and clinical preventive service use. The data, derived from small area estimates, will empower anyone to better see how health varies by location and plan tailored interventions.

Traditionally, public health officials were limited by health data available only at the state or county level. But a third of the U.S. population resides within cities, which are only a portion of the overall county or state population. This website finally illustrates city level information on the risk behaviors associated with illness and early death, as well as the health conditions and diseases that are the most common, costly, and preventable.

Cities chosen for the project represent the largest 497 cities in the nation by population, with three additional cities added to cover all 50 U.S. states (Burlington, Vt.; Charleston, W. Va.; and Cheyenne, Wyo.). The website, data and map books deliver timely, high-quality, small-area epidemiologic health data for cities and small areas within cities. City populations range from 42,417 (Burlington, Vt.) to 8,175,133 (New York City). Approximately a third of the nation’s population is represented in the data, which includes measurements on 5 unhealthy behaviors (e.g., current smoking), 13 health outcomes (e.g., coronary heart disease, diabetes, etc.), and 9 prevention practices (e.g., health insurance coverage, cholesterol screening, etc.). A complete list of health measures, definitions and a city list are available at the 500 Cities website.

What Makes Data From 500 Cities Special?

500 Cities data complements existing data sources by providing information on unhealthy behaviors, health outcomes and prevention practices in small geographic areas. For example, public health officials can use the following data sets to paint a more complete picture of the health of their regions:

  • The annual County Health Rankings measures county level health factors (obesity, smoking, food access, income, housing etc.) for all counties in the U.S. The site also includes a Roadmaps to Health Action Center section that provide guidance and tools to help communities take action.
  • America’s Health Rankings, a project of the American Public Health Association, the United Health Foundation and Partnership for Prevention is a source for trends in nationwide public health and state-by-state rankings using 34 measures of behaviors, community and environment, policies, and clinical care data.
  • VCU Life Expectancy Maps illustrate how opportunities to lead a long and healthy life vary dramatically by neighborhood. In some cases, life expectancy can differ by as much as 20 years in neighborhoods only about five miles apart from one another. The maps help raise awareness of factors that shape health and spur discussion and action on a complex web of issues that influence health.

While these data sets provide quick access to health issues affecting local populations, the 500 Cities Project provides a granular level of detail that will help identify key or emerging health problems. This local data can help policymakers and community leaders identify persistent inequities and direct interventions and funding accordingly.

Back in Old Colony YMCA, public health officials are using 500 Cities data along with other data sets to fine-tune prevention efforts. They know that two area emergency departments have extremely high rates of hospitalizations for poorly-managed diabetes. 500 Cities data reveal that many of these hospitalizations arise from the same census tract, which suffers from nearly twice the rates of diabetes as neighboring tracts. Brockton Knocks Down Diabetes, a local coalition of over 40 organizations, combined two 500 Cities maps (on diagnosed diabetes and lack of health insurance, respectively) to pinpoint the best locations to hold educational workshops. By focusing on the areas with the greatest need for those two indicators, they hope to have the greatest impact.

Watch a May 2017 webinar video to learn how to use the new interactive website to retrieve, explore, and visualize city and census tract-level data in your community.


About the Author

Headshot of Oktawai Wojcik

Oktawia Wojcik’s work focuses on driving demand for healthy places and practices and building a Culture of Health through research that informs grantmaking and broader health-related policy and practice. Read her full bio