Defining Data Equity

The term “equity” is practically a buzzword these days — and it’s a good thing to have top of mind. Synonymous with fairness, equity encompasses more than that. It’s about the “consistent and systematic fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals.” And when applied to data, it can “illuminate opportunities for targeted actions that will result in demonstrably improved outcomes for underserved communities.”

Since President Biden signed the “Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government” in 2021, more than 90 federal agencies have created equity action plans. State and local leaders are acting, too. Here are three examples of data equity in action.

Food Pantry Mapping in South Carolina

The state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) and Clemson University’s College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences launched in 2022 an interactive ArcGIS-powered map that shows where people in need can get assistance. The EJ Strong Food Access Map — named after DHEC’s Environmental Justice (EJ) Strong training initiative in underserved counties — covers all the state’s 46 counties and has pinned more than 900 locations offering help, such as food and clothing, according to an announcement from Clemson.

Clicking a pin on the map makes a window pop up with the name, address and phone number of places offering help. Users can filter results by clicking an icon that will show what’s nearby. They also can see whether a site has income restrictions or requires a photo ID or application, and get directions from the map.

DHEC notes that the map is extensive but not exhaustive. “It will remain a work in progress as more sites are added and the resource is kept up to date,” the website states. The university maintains the map.

County-Level Community Exploration Through the Census Bureau

In April 2022, Census released My Community Explorer (MCE), an interactive dashboard with profiles of all 3,000-plus counties in the United States that shows location and demographic data on poverty, education access and language. MCE is designed to help users identify underserved communities and relies on four main datasets:

  • Select demographic and socioeconomic statistics from the 2015-19 American Community Survey (ACS), which helps determine how $675 billion in federal and state funds get distributed each year.
  • Risk factor group data from Community Resilience Estimates (CRE), which use 2019 ACS microdata and population estimates to measure individuals’ and households’ ability to handle the external impacts of a disaster.
  • County Business Patterns, which includes data on the number of establishments, average annual payroll per employee and employment per county.
  • Selected stats on self-employed workers from 2018 Nonemployer Statistics, such as the number of firms and average annual receipts per firm.

MCE users can explore by zooming and panning the map and clicking on a state, county or census tract. Clicking on one of those geographies brings up a window with 2019 CRE data, including percentages of the population with zero, one, two, or three or more predominant risk factors.

CDC Prioritizes Health Equity

Data practices that give everyone a chance at health became a priority when a CDC reorganization went into effect on Feb. 8, 2023.

“Our goal is an ‘equity-centered’ data system that accounts for social factors that have an impact on health, such as where people live, their environment, their income and jobs, the discrimination they face, and their access to health care,” CDC’s Walensky wrote in an email to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The shift follows CDC’s Moving Forward effort in 2022 that included the creation of a new equity office to promote and monitor equity efforts departmentwide.

In recent years, CDC has faced criticism for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which many say highlighted inequities in health care for people of color, those in rural communities and the unhoused — some of the factors in CDC’s social determinants of health.

“We now have the opportunity as the science has increased, as we understand more about the drivers of health disparities, that we can also use our science to be more intentional about addressing those things,” Leandris Liburd, Acting Director of CDC’s new Office of Health Equity, told the newspaper.

4 Tips for Ensuring Data Equity

Use existing datasets from nonprofits, chambers of commerce and other community organizations to identify demographics that have a harder time accessing services and programming.

Provide forms — digital and paper-based because not everyone has access to a computer — for collecting data from individuals in underserved populations in multiple languages, not just English.

Use disaggregated data — data broken into subcategories — while ensuring the protection of private and sensitive information. Federal agencies can get assistance with disaggregating data from 13 statistical agencies. What’s more, “statistical agencies should explore creating multi- year datasets for national surveys that will allow publishing estimates for small populations,” according to “A Vision for Equitable Data.”

Understand that equity efforts aren’t one-time deals. To ensure that data is accurate and actionable, collect and analyze it regularly, and engage community members, advisory boards, task forces and others in ways to take that data from statistics to actions.

This article appears in our guide, “Decision Intelligence: New Possibilities for Data-Based Decision-Making.” For more about how agencies are using data in practical ways, download it here:

Photo by MART PRODUCTION at pexels.com/photo

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