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Chronos met with Kathryn Pettit, Director of the National Neighborhoods Indicators Partnership which offers an easier way to understand community indicators.
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Interview with Kathryn Pettit (NNIP): empowering communities through local data intermediaries

"Imaginez si tous les quartiers à l'échelle du pays avaient accès à leurs propres données - des données qui indiquent où est-ce que l'absentéisme est trop élevé, où est-ce que l'immobilier deviant inabordable, où est-ce que les mères ont accès aux meilleurs soins prénataux ... » Voici comment NextCity décrit le projet de « Partenariat national pour des indicateurs de quartiers » ("National Neighborhoods Indicators Partnership" en anglais). Ce partenariat est une sorte de réseau d'intermédiaires locaux de la donnée (associations, université) qui travaille de concert avec l'Urban Institute pour rendre la donnée compréhensible par les acteurs locaux (les ONG, les collectivités, les fondations ... et les citoyens). Nous avons rencontré Kathryn Pettit, directrice du NNIP et Senior Research Associate au sein du Urban Institute, afin qu'elle nous raconte son projet. (interview en anglais)

"Imagine if every community nationwide had access to their own data — data on which children are missing too many days of school, which neighborhoods are becoming unaffordable, or where more mothers are getting better access to prenatal care"... That is how NextCity starts evoking the National Neighborhoods Indicators Partnership(NNIP). The NNIP is a peer network of local data intermediaries (non-profit, universities...) and the l'Urban Institute , working to make data understandable for local stakeholders: nonprofits, government agencies, foundations and residents. We met Kathryn Pettit, Director of the NNIP and Senior Research Associate at the Urban Institute, to learn more about the project.

Could you please describe the Urban Institute in a few words?

The UI is a non-profit policy research organization. It was founded in 1968, upon the request of the president Johnson during its "War on poverty". It was then charged with reviewing and evaluating the different programs that were developed by the federal government. Today, the Urban Institute has the following objectives:

  • Analyzing and evaluating social and economic policies through research.
  • Expanding opportunities and reducing hardships for vulnerable populations
  • Improving effectiveness in the public sector
  • Helping public agencies through consultancy.

The UI has deployed 10 centers across the United States, and gets involved in a wide array of public policies - labor, health, urbanism, housing, criminal justice, economic opportunities, etc. It employs sociologists, economists, urban planners...

What is the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership? Why did you start this initiative?

The National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) is a collaboration between the Urban Institute and local organizations that connect people with neighborhood data. It is funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (a broader set of foundations fund our cross-site projects)

America's cities have never been homogenous.[1] Social and urban divides have always been somehow important in the US. But there is a lack of understanding of the real causes & consequences of such divides. And the lack of understanding may lead to inefficient or counterproductive public policies. Many stakeholders recognize that they have no solid basis for targeting resources or evaluating programs created to improve living conditions in distressed neighborhoods, if they lack hard facts on the neighborhood-level patterns and trends.

But public data has been improving a lot since the 1990s - in terms of quantity, variety and quality. More recently, public institutions have started to implement open data portals. The Urban Institute has seen a real opportunity in such improvement - it is now possible to implement "community indicators". Community indicators are measures of living conditions, resources, or attributes of populations that can be compared over time or between places and groups.

By analyzing and disseminating the data available at the neighborhood level, NNIP partners allow local stakeholders to knowledgeably participate in the conversations about urban planning, social policies, etc. Our partners perform and disseminate analysis on topics related to low-income households and neighborhoods. Topics are really diverse: economic development, education, housing, and equity...

How does it work? Who are such "local intermediaries"?

We work with local partners in 32 cities. The Urban Institute coordinates, empowers and provides technical assistances and formations to "local intermediaries". Most intermediaries are University centers, usually across departments working on urban policy, or independent non-profit organizations, and community foundations - more randomly public institutions. Partners are self sustaining the network doesn't fund them for general expenses.

Local data intermediaries perform many functions: assembling, transforming, and disseminating data.

A successful local data intermediary needs a bunch of different talents. It starts with a political talent negotiating the data and communicating the value to the stakeholders, then a technical talent figuring the quality of databases, deciding what indicators matter, etc. Sometimes they also need specific expertise (health, housing) to help draw the right conclusions. Then they need to engage people with the data so it is more about communication skills, etc. This might mean talking to parents about child obesity or canvassing residents to identify their top priorities for their neighborhoods. Or educating elected officials about the need for quality child care or small business supports. Each time partner organizations gather the specific pool of different expertise needed.

Where does the data come from ?

Data is always at a neighborhood level, multi-topic and updated over time.

The data primarily comes from local government agencies. The types of data include property sales, crime, public assistance, education, community surveys. We use both quantitative and qualitative data.


  • Education --> Student absences, student proficiency ...
  • Health --> Asthma hospitalizations, Sexually transmitted diseases ...
  • Public assistance --> Medicaid, food assistance, subsidized child care ...
  • Safety --> Arrests, persons on probation ...
  • Housing ->Property sales, Vacant parcels etc.

Each year, as part of their commitment to the network, we ask NNIP partners to report out on the local administrative data that they maintain, including the sources, time period of coverage, and geographic level of their files.

Partners are careful with confidential data and protect the privacy of individuals by only releasing summary level data.

Do you have examples of successful projects?

Here are two interesting examples:

1/ In Cleveland, our NNIP partner at Case Western Reserve University looked at the literacy scores of the 13,762 children who entered kindergarten in Cleveland public schools between 2007 and 2010. Then, drawing on public records, they compared those children's literacy scores in relation to the homes and neighborhoods they grew up in—including home-quality ratings, property values, and foreclosure and vacant-property rates.

The analysis found that kindergarten readiness scores were negatively affected by children's cumulative exposure to poor quality housing and disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Housing market crisis events, such as foreclosure and disinvestment, also had negative effects on kindergarten readiness* scores. Also we estimate that children that spent all of their pre-school years in poor housing and neighborhood conditions were 25 percentage points more likely to have an elevated lead level** than those who avoided such circumstances, controlling for other factors.
It is a really interesting (and alarming) result for public institutions. It should help educational institutions consider housing conditions as a determining factor in the children's educational success. It should make home rehabilitation and housing policies a priority for the city of Cleveland.

2/ In Oakland, our partner Urban Strategies Council analyzed the academic and social inequities that African American males are facing in key areas such as education. They had a closer look at suspensions at school. When students are removed from school, their learning is severely disrupted through loss of instructional time. Disciplinary policies often cause students to spend far too many days outside the school for behavioral infractions which can lead to lower academic achievement and increased high school dropout.

They found out that African American males were suspended at a rate more than six times the rate for white males across the district. In Elementary schools this ratio was closer to nine times higher while in high schools the rate was slightly over double the rate for white males. As a result African American males missed 5,869 days of school due to suspensions between 2010 and 2011, representing an economic loss of $163,000 for the Oakland Unified School District. Such conclusions push for alternative solutions to "zero tolerance" policies and suspensions.

It helps raise awareness on the disproportionate effect of school policies on african American boys, it also helps imagining alternative policies and reduce disparities.

What's next?

We are working to promote our model to other cities and other circles. This is just the beginning, but on the long term, such partnerships can really help agencies in more places prioritize their policies and their budgets. Looking towards the future, our latest projects are working with Microsoft to expand data and technology training for nonprofits and government agencies; explore how data organizations, civic technologists, and local governments in 3 places can use tech and data in new ways to tackle problems like youth employment, affordable housing, and criminal justice reform., and monitoring revitalizing neighborhoods where there's risk of displacement of low-income families.

*Kindergarten readiness: This assessment includes ways for teachers to measure a child's readiness for engaging with instruction aligned to the kindergarten standards.

** Lead poisoning: Most of the houses in the city were built before 1978, when the federal government banned the use of lead paint.

Learn more about the projects:

The Atlantic - How a House Can Shape a Child's Future

Case Western Reserve University - Lead poisoning makes education harder

Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development - Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences Case Western Reserve University - Leveraging Integrated Data Systems to Examine the Effect of Housing and Neighborhood Conditions on Kindergarten Readiness, 2016




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[1] Urban Insitute - Strengthening communities with neighborhood data, 2014

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