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As pandemic bites, U.S. cities use data to fight race and income gaps

by Carey L. Biron | @clbtea | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 10 January 2022 06:01 GMT

City workers distribute money cards and meal assistance, including culturally specific food aid, in Portland, Oregon, in May 2021. Handout photo by the City of Portland's Emergency Coordination Center.

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By mining their data, city authorities across the United States have found new tools to fight racial and economic inequality during COVID-19

* Data increasingly used to target aid and resources

* Pandemic, demands for racial justice drive innovation

* Findings of resident feedback guide policymaking

By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON, Jan 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Donald Gadson and his wife had been meaning to sort out their financial affairs when she died after a sudden illness - plunging the family and their century-old Philadelphia home into legal limbo.

Five years on, Gadson recently got matters in order with help from a legal aid organization, ensuring that the family home - which had been in his wife's name - will eventually pass to his two sons.

"A home is a place where you can start building wealth – because it's something stable, something you know," Gadson, 62, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Many more city residents beset by "tangled title" issues may now be able to access similar legal assistance thanks to a pioneering analysis of home ownership data released last year.

Officials say the research will help them pinpoint aid for some 10,000 families unable to access $1 billion in property. A disproportionate number were found to be from communities of color, with many clustered in just three city districts.

As well as freezing family-owned wealth, title issues can prevent residents from accessing basic government services or post-disaster assistance, and make them vulnerable to predatory development.

The Philadelphia initiative is among a growing number of projects across the United States using data to address inequality - an effort that has gained momentum during the pandemic and since 2020's Black Lives Matter protests.

"We're at the beginning of a really exciting time, where we're able to allow the data to drive us to think about how to problem-solve," said James P. Leonard, Philadelphia's commissioner of records.

He said the use of the data, which had been analyzed in a study by the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts, marked a potentially "transformational" new chapter for the city.

At local legal aid organization Philadelphia VIP, home ownership attorney P. Michael Jones said the data flags exactly who needs assistance, when previously they relied on a less targeted approach.

"Thanks to the data, we're able to target specific areas and even households that are impacted," he said.

This summer, Gadson met with a Philadelphia VIP attorney who within months was able to fix the family's legal problems, adding his sons' names to the house deed and resolving other outstanding issues.

"It lifted a whole weight off," he said.


Economic fallout from COVID-19, coupled with demands for racial justice, have piled new pressures on U.S. city governments.

"We were hearing two very real, parallel concerns at a volume we hadn't heard before - one focused on equity, and the other on the lack of money," said Stacey Gillett, who leads on government innovation for Bloomberg Philanthropies, referring to conversations with city leaders.

When the federal government started disbursing unprecedented aid to city authorities in March 2021, local officials turned their attention to how to spend the windfall fairly, she said.

"So we said, 'let's start somewhere: Do you know what the needs are, at the neighborhood level, at the race level? So many cities don't even disaggregate data by race," she said.

A small-business owner picks up personal protective equipment and sanitizing supplies at a city-hosted giveaway in San Antonio, Texas. Handout photo by Fred Gonzales.

In October 2020, Gillett helped start a program with Bloomberg's What Works Cities initiative, bringing together budget and finance heads from several dozen cities to look at how to foster an equitable recovery from the pandemic.

Data has played a central role in crafting policies focused on boosting equality.

"We've now seen city leaders and staff shift away from the way things always have been done and really instead focus on how data ... can stabilize and make lives better for residents," said Jenn Park, founding director of the What Works Cities certification program, which helps cities boost their data use.

In San Antonio, Texas, officials had already been developing tools aimed at better targeting budget resources but the pandemic accelerated their implementation, said city manager Erik Walsh.

City workers distribute money cards and meal assistance, including culturally specific food aid, in Portland, Oregon, in April 2021. Handout photo by the City of Portland's Emergency Coordination Center.

"We were moving at light speed," he said by phone. "It was data we had and needed it to inform our decisions. And rather than overthinking it, we just started using it."

Among the city's data-led innovations was the creation of an "equity atlas" that breaks down the population by race and income.

That resource was used for the first time to channel federal coronavirus aid, such as awarding grants for small businesses in areas with bigger racial and income disparities.


For many cities, gaining more insight about different residents' needs and frustrations has meant asking them directly - before carefully poring over their answers.

In Durham, North Carolina, officials have revisited a raft of seemingly minor measures after open-ended consultations with residents revealed they were having a disproportionate effect on marginalized communities.

These include, for instance, the difficulties that can stem from suspending someone's driving license, said Erin Parish, a design strategist with the city.

"During COVID, we took that same approach: What were their biggest issues around fines and fees? They said traffic tickets, parking citations and water bills," she said, prompting work to figure out how such levies could be waived or minimized.

City workers hold a drive-through COVID-19 vaccination clinic in a part of Portland-Oregon, where underrepresented communities live. Handout photo by the City of Portland's Emergency Coordination Center.

Portland, Oregon, too, has been putting more emphasis on residents' feedback, said Koffi Dessou, deputy director of the city's Office of Equity and Human Rights.

When pandemic food aid was being distributed, for instance, he said officials heard certain foods were going to waste due to medical or religious restrictions.

Now, Portland is trying to measure the effectiveness of all federal pandemic-related funding among city residents, through data gathered from those receiving the resources.

"The impetus for data is now coming from everywhere," said Walle Brown, a data analyst with Portland's equity office. "We're at an unprecedented time."


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(Reporting by Carey L. Biron @clbtea; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.