Data driven decision-making is becoming increasingly popular. However, availability, quality and accessibility of data are often barriers to actualizing consistent practices to use data to inform decision-making. Moreover, most data sets are not shaped or informed by those for whom prospective policies, programs or investments are most intended to impact. This creates a cycle of wasted resources, ineffectiveness and frustration in communities.
One approach to reducing the challenges of data availability and quality is to proactively design research studies that are intended to address the data gap and involve community members in every stage of the data-gathering process. This approach is often called community-based participatory research (CBPR). CBPR engages multiple stakeholders at every step of the research process to ensure that the most impactful research questions are being asked to address issues most germane to communities, policy-makers and other various stakeholders.
An example of the effectiveness of CBPR is highlighted in the recent research conducted in Houston’s Third Ward. Third Ward is a historically African-American neighborhood in southeast Houston that is close to downtown, the medical center and major freeways such as I-45 and Hwy 288. The neighborhood also houses two major learning institutions, the University of Houston and Texas Southern University. Third Ward has a rich history and many of its residents have lived in the neighborhood for over fifteen years. Yet, the rapid addition of new housing developments and rising cost in the neighborhood has caused concerns about gentrification from residents, policy-makers and philanthropy. Community stakeholders recognized the need to make data-informed decisions, yet the available data could not inform all aspects of identifying policies, programs and investment opportunities to foster neighborhood revitalization that does not cause displacement.
In concert with community efforts, our study identified critical questions and types of information that could inform policies to stabilize the neighborhood and improve the health and wellbeing of Third Ward residents. Because the research process included community members and other stakeholders, the data gathered was tailored to answer the most important questions to influence community change. Moreover, the inclusion of policymakers and other stakeholders throughout the process facilitated the use of this data once the study was completed. Stakeholders in Sunnyside and South Park desired similar data for their communities and we undertook a comparable research process in their neighborhoods to collect data on strengths and opportunities for improvement.
Community-level data has important implications for public policy, philanthropy, and for social action outcomes in communities like Third Ward and Sunnyside. High quality community-level data can inform targeted, evidence-based strategies, programs and investments that offer a higher return on investment. Such efforts also have the added value of building the capacity of community residents, which offers an opportunity to mitigate structural issues and confront the lack of opportunity in disadvantaged communities. Moreover, when equipped with a holistic understanding of the lived experience of community residents, leaders and decision makers can avoid being prescriptive about solutions to community problems without understanding the day-to-day challenges that residents face.
Using a community-driven approach also offers an opportunity to validate residents’ concerns and fears while simultaneously recognizing and leveraging community assets and strengths. This orientation to community work uplifts the voices of those who are the most vulnerable and disenfranchised in society—the community members who are least likely to be heard and often most impacted by the issues being studied. In this way, the research process can serve as a starting point for advancing equity.
Community-level data is critical to improving neighborhood outcomes, and there is a continued need for investments to equip other communities across the Greater Houston area with high-quality data. Given the drastic difference in data quality, we need to embrace and expand community-based research practices, not only because this approach yields better results, but also because the research process itself can become part of the solution, a step toward advancing equity in vulnerable communities.