Using data to improve Baltimore neighborhoods

By DRAKE FOREMAN | February 7, 2019

Cheryl Knott, the geographic information systems project manager of Baltimore Neighborhood Alliance (BNIA), gave a guest lecture during a class titled “Health and Wellbeing in Baltimore: A Public Health Perspective.” She discussed different factors affecting Baltimore’s community health, as well as the various data that can be used to assess it. 

While the primary instructor of the class is Philip J. Leaf, different guest speakers like Knott come in each week to show students the work they do to improve the health and wellbeing of Baltimore residents. Guest speakers also shed light on the role that students can play in the community.

The lecture started with Leaf emphasizing the role a community can have on an individual’s health. 

“We’re all interconnected. We want to think of health as a public good,“ he said. “If our students in Baltimore city aren’t healthy, then in the long term, we’ll have fewer people that are capable of maintaining jobs and income for the city.” 

Knott said that just as there are multiple environmental factors that can cause a plant to die, there are multiple environmental factors that can affect people’s health. 

“If you do not fix the environment, you will not have great health outcomes for the tomato plant or the human being,” she said. 

Knott stressed the importance of examining the root issues that affect the environment, because people in turn is affected by it too.

The Baltimore Neighborhood Alliance (BNIA) is a non-profit organization that pulls together data and resources from other local agencies and make these data available to residents, students and researchers.

The BNIA is focused on community indicators, which include statistics such as unemployment rate, median household income and life expectancy. These data points allow BNIA to see different trends over time and to better understand health and wellbeing in a neighborhood. 

According to Knott, the data is important for residents and nonprofits trying to implement change. Data can indicate if the community is doing better or worse as a result of the intervention. 

BNIA has released 16 vital signs, which is a culmination of 160 different quality of life measures.

From this data, Knott said, BNIA noticed that the state and well-being of neighborhoods are heavily determined by their population change. 

Knott explained that the growing population in neighborhoods are usually correlated with increased retail, congestion, increased crime, rise in housing costs and fear of displacement.

On the contrary, neighborhoods with declining populations tend to have higher amounts of vacant buildings, concentrated poverty, high unemployment rate, violent crimes, school closings and food desserts.

The neighborhoods with stable population faced the least problems, their primary concerns being marketing, school quality and rehabilitation.

In Baltimore, neighborhoods particularly concentrated in the East and West Baltimore areas faced declining populations. Furthermore, these same neighborhoods faced higher percentages of problems correlated with the declining population, including higher percentage of vacant building, school closings and violent crimes. 

Knott was surprised that there were neighborhoods where almost a third of the houses were vacant or uninhabitable. 

“If you have more than 4% of homes in neighborhoods that are vacant or abandoned, you are not going to increase population because no one is willing to move into these communities where they might experience horrific outcomes – violence, school closing, food desserts,” she said. 

According to the data that BNIA collected, there seemed to be a direct correlation between communities that grew in population and access to major roads, subway lines, and interstates.

Knott stated that the most important way to address health disparities and poor conditions in neighborhoods is to bring back jobs to Baltimore. 

“You need to be able to put people back to work, so that they can have a means of escaping poverty, so that they can have more retail in their communities, so that they can have more schools to send their kids, and have access to healthcare,” she said. 

Knott hopes that in the future, the data will not only be used by residents but also by policy makers. 

“We try to send it out to council members because we want to make sure that when decisions are being made, they’re informed by data, not biased stories,” she said.

Freshman Yvette Bailey-Emberson, who is taking the class, explained that she enjoyed the lecture, and that it made her think more about ways that she can improve Baltimore’s public health.  

“I’m from Baltimore, and I’m interested in public health, but I took this class to figure out how or why I would do public health,” she said. “This was really interesting and a good way to figure out health to help create change and do good things.”

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