Experts: Why cities must keep pushing for race-based data

Four months since early signs emerged that COVID-19 is taking a disproportionate toll on people of color, some progress has been made in collecting key data points by race and ethnicity. According to Johns Hopkins University, 48 states now break down their COVID-19 confirmed case counts by race and 46 states do the same for deaths. That’s data city leaders can often drill down into to better understand how the pandemic is impacting different communities in their cities.

The situation is far worse when it comes to data on testing. Just six states are releasing testing data broken down by race, meaning that decision makers don’t have as clear a view on whether efforts to boost testing availability in minority neighborhoods are working. “That’s ridiculous — all states should be releasing this information right now,” said Tiffany Davis, a senior advisor at the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins. When it comes to disaggregating COVID-19 data by race and ethnicity, Davis said, “we still have a long way to go.”

It’s important for city leaders to keep pushing for improvement, Davis said. City leaders need localized COVID-19 data broken down by race and ethnicity to be able to target their outreach and scarce resources to where they’re needed the most. “We need to make sure testing and other resources are not being withheld in a racially discriminatory manner,” Davis said.

What’s more, getting good at this could pay long-term dividends as cities look to bake equity into the COVID recovery, their future programs, and budgets. “The exercise of doing this work is crucial because the lessons of having race data are going to impact beyond the crisis,” said Sari Ladin-Sienne, the former chief data officer for Los Angeles who now works with a wide range of cities’ data initiatives as a program manager with the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. “Cities will need to dive into the data on many topics they haven’t considered before in order to address structural racism that leads to racial disparities.”

The COVID-19 crisis has uncovered several challenges for cities in this area. In most cases, cities are not the ones collecting the COVID-19 data — counties or states are — and getting them to share information has been difficult in many cases. Data quality is also an issue, as is the fact that many cities, especially smaller ones, are short on resources.

To step up their game, cities need to do three things, experts say:

Collaborate and advocate. To get COVID-19 data disaggregated by race and ethnicity, city leaders more often than not have to work closely with their county health departments or similar agencies at the state level. Those relationships have come easier in some states than others, with some states holding up privacy laws as a reason not to share information with localities. “It’s largely dependent on your governor,” Davis said. “This is where you have to put on your advocacy hat and work with partners to get this information and formalize a program to be able to sustain it.”

Cities need to hammer out and continually revise data-sharing agreements with their state- and county-level counterparts to set the terms of what information can be shared and how it happens. In Maryland, Davis said, it was a fight to get racial data, and advocates are glad they pushed for it. When data showed huge racial disparities in COVID-19’s impact, new testing sites were opened in Baltimore, where nearly two-thirds of the residents are African-American.

“This is something where you can’t let politics get in the way,” Ladin-Sienne said. “There are so many reasons not to go through the process of introducing a new data-sharing agreement and getting access to information. But all of that has to be put aside now.”

Be nimble. Where cities have worked through these issues, many are still finding that data broken down by race or ethnicity are incomplete. In some cases, testing locations aren’t asking for this information, and in other cases, people seeking tests aren’t giving it. It’s not uncommon for COVID-19 dashboards to have racial and ethnic data for a third or more of their caseloads marked “unknown.”

While this is a problem, Amen Ra Mashariki, the former Chief Analytics Officer for New York City, said it doesn’t need to stop city leaders in their tracks. “In some cities, that may be the best you can get,“ said Mashariki, who is now Global Director of the Data Lab at the World Resources Institute. What’s important, he said, is that cities get enough disaggregated data to be able to see the overall trends and then go into the community to “ground truth” it.

“If you’ve got 30 percent of cases unidentified, don’t look at it as failure — look at it as getting close,” Mashariki said. “You can still use it to go out knocking on doors in these communities and engage. And then you’re more able to count the unreported because you’re actually operationalizing that data.”

Put the data to work. City leaders who push to collect COVID-19 data by race and ethnicity need to be prepared to act on what they find. For example, when data in Chicago began pointing to a disproportionate toll in the Black and Latinx communities, Mayor Lori Lightfoot set up a Racial Equity Task Force to go target outreach, prevention, testing, and support services in impacted neighborhoods.

Davis said it’s critical that cities not only collect disparity data but also stitch it into their decision-making process. If they can do that, she said, they can use the pandemic experience as a true springboard to more equitable governance. “We have to make sure there’s an equity lens on everything we do,” Davis said. “It’s almost a blessing in disguise that cities are now seeing that they have to change the way they do business and make decisions, and incorporate data into those decisions.”

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Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program. bloombergcities.org

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