Leveraging Data to Address Community Needs in King County

Leveraging Data to Address Community Needs in King County

A longtime data intermediary in the Seattle area reflects on opportunities to partner with tech and leverage data for big-picture change.

Driven in part by successes of our region’s innovative tech industry, Seattle leads the nation’s large cities in its rate of population growth. As real estate developers rush to accommodate the housing needs of skilled and highly-paid tech workers, low-income families are being displaced and homelessness has increased so dramatically that Seattle and King County formally declared a state of emergency.

Technology has profoundly altered our local culture and economy. But its powers have not been optimized to mend the growing divide between the “haves” and the “have nots.”

Faced with this paradox of prosperity, Communities Count, a public-private partnership, sought community-driven answers to the question, “How can we leverage tech and data to bridge the ever-widening economic and opportunity gaps in our communities?”

Read on for reflections from Louise Carter and Elaine Albertson, of Communities Count, on their efforts to lead with community needs in crafting a partnership with the tech community:

As data experts, why were you interested in bridging tech and data to benefit low-income residents?

It is absurd and shameful that King County, an iconic home to the transformative power of technology, harbors deepening disparities in health and wealth. We believe the data and analytic capacities of our community-based organizations and government agencies offer opportunities for synergy with our strong tech sector.

Technology has profoundly altered our local culture and economy. But its powers have not been optimized to mend the growing divide between the “haves” and the “have nots.”

For example, integrating King County’s population-level data (on close to 200 indicators) with data from our regional Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) could offer service providers, community-based organizations, and Public Health staff coordinated data that they could use to guide interventions and understand community conditions associated with homelessness. Joining HMIS demographic analyses of local homeless populations with general population data could anchor the HMIS data in a meaningful local context. Policymakers could immediately see, for example, that in 2015, while Blacks/African Americans represented 41% of people experiencing homelessness, they comprised only 6% of the general population.

We might then be able to drill down into the integrated data to uncover risk factors that would not show up in either data set alone. Integrating our data systems could surface opportunities for new approaches to stem the tide of homelessness and share our economic prosperity more broadly.

What did you learn through taking a community-driven approach to identifying a problem?

We are always wary of top-down solutions to complex problems. Members of OPEN Seattle, our local Code for America brigade, were eager to enlist our help on existing projects for significant public issues (for example, monitoring a toxic-waste clean-up or mapping areas underserved by transit routes), but we didn’t want to pre-empt the opportunity for residents of low-income neighborhoods to set their own course.

We decided to go to where we felt there was greatest need, and focused on a South King County community with a high poverty rate, poor health outcomes, and the lowest life expectancy in the county. Communities Count had not previously worked in this community, so we gathered names and introduced ourselves to librarians, health educators, city government officials, and staff of community-based organizations. We pitched the project at community meetings, initially asking about the “civic tech and data needs” of low-income residents. The question elicited enough blank stares and stammering “not-sure-what-you-mean” responses that we quickly shifted to language that was more easily understood.

By the time we fielded an informal survey – primarily by distributing it at meetings of community-based organizations and human services staff – we were asking about “the kinds of community information” useful to residents and service providers and how that information was typically accessed and shared.

While the survey offered useful guidance about ways to improve our existing data products and partnerships, it didn’t yield a clear directive for a new app or new civic data and tech partnership to improve the lives of low-income residents. In retrospect, our insistence that the community come up with a problem amenable to be solved by data and technology was akin to a doctor prescribing treatment for an illness before the patient has described the symptoms.

With that experience in mind, what will the next phase of your work look like?

We’re still committed to a community-driven approach, but now we’re starting conversations in places where we – or one of our partners – have established relationships. For one thing, having these relationships means we are starting from a basis of trust and don’t have to spend as much time convincing the community of our commitment to them. We will of course continue to forge new relationships in new communities, recognizing that that a coordinated, multi-sector effort will be needed to engage communities that are not already connected with government agencies or nonprofit organizations.

For example, through the Communities of Opportunity initiative, Public Health staff and members of the Communities Count steering committee have extensive experience in White Center (a neighborhood south of Seattle). A 2017 survey of residents by the White Center Community Development Association (CDA) identified access to affordable housing and supporting people experiencing homelessness as top priorities. With this data about residents’ self-identified needs as a launching point, we may be able to dive into problem-solving more quickly—rather than leading backwards from our solution (i.e. “a civic tech and data project”).

Communities Count is well-positioned to take on issues such as affordable housing – not alone, but as a data partner, a connector, and a catalyst for creative solutions. For example, one community-based organization requested assistance with data analysis because they couldn’t afford the appropriate software. We provided technical assistance, but we also reached out to local libraries to see if they might offer statistical software. One next step may be to host a community café where we invite neighbors and regional data and tech partners to share perspectives on housing and homelessness.

Now that you’ve honed in on an issue area, how will you identify the partners and resources to involve in addressing the problem?

As participants in the Civic Tech and Data Collaborative, we mapped the rich data and technology landscape in our region. This exercise helped us to see – and connect – many ways that community-based social services and housing-development organizations already use data strategically. For example, the Housing Development Consortium curates valuable data resources (administrative, government, and educational) to inform programs and policies. Local organizations – especially community development associations – engage with communities to collect primary data about housing and other topics, and use that data to organize and advocate for change. These efforts bring needed community voices to the decision-making table. Already, neighbors have shared their visions about crowd-sourcing, data-sharing, improved data infrastructure, and democratization of data.

We also want to tap national data resources, such as the National Housing Preservation database and innovative projects from other places, including the Housing Insights open-source affordable housing preservation tool from our CTDC counterparts in Washington, DC.

Economic inequality isn’t unique to King County; it’s increasing worldwide at a frightening rate. Nevertheless, there is reason for hope here. From Boeing to Microsoft and Amazon, our region’s brand of tech innovation developed and thrives in a context of deep compassion. King County neighbors consistently vote to tax themselves to support education, libraries, families, and children. Local philanthropies, civic leaders, and citizens are unified in their commitment to equity and social justice.

Every good idea – and every strong relationship – taps us into a deeper understanding of how community members, data experts, and technology partners, working together, can craft solutions to very difficult problems.

Seattle is a participating city in the Civic Tech and Data Collaborative, which harnesses the power of technology and data to make local governments and civic organizations more effective in meeting the pressing challenges of the 21st century. Led by three national organizations – Code for America, Living Cities, and the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership – the Collaborative is a two-year project that provides grants and technical assistance to seven urban communities around the country to improve civic tech and data ecosystems. Funding for this collaborative was made possible with support and partnership from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.


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