Earlier this week we learned of the introduction of Federal Senate and House companion bills with titles that refer to the protection of local zoning ordinances. Both bills include a section (Section 3) stating “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no Federal funds may be used to design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing.” We at D3 see this section as having wide-ranging ramifications on access to public data that is critical to everyday decision-making at both local and national levels.
We’ve been debating about this post at the D3 office for days. We have a diverse team, running the political spectrum, coming from different backgrounds, with our own personal beliefs about what makes good policy. So let’s start by setting aside the content from the other sections of the bills. Although we have a diverse set of political viewpoints in this country, most Americans can agree on the fundamental belief that everyone should have equal access to opportunity. Section 3 puts this vision in jeopardy.
Rather than relying solely on intuition and subjective experience, informed decisions must begin with an understanding of the problem to be solved, and be driven by an analysis of clean and unbiased data with clarity on the limitations of the conclusions. Technology and data now make this possible by supporting decisions and policy positions that are more effective. Access to data is essential for this process to work.
The federal government, since its inception (see Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution), has played a critical role in the collection, dissemination, and utilization of data. Day-to-day Federal activities generate heaps of useful information, and several Federal departments fund data development and research. In fact, we are currently engaged in work with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to further the development of local data intermediaries similar to D3. Using the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership model, we amplify the power of federal and state data by folding in local data sources and context in all of our work. Removing Federal spending from these activities could severely impact our ability to serve our community.
In particular, Section 3 calls to mind a body of research that has grown substantially over the past two decades, broadly termed “social determinants of health” – the idea that who your parents and family are and where you were born and raised has dramatic impacts on your health and outcomes throughout your lifetime. We wouldn’t know these differences exist if this data, particularly the race and ethnicity of people, wasn’t collected and released for public consumption and research. If we as a community are unaware of these disparities, we have zero ability to make changes that get us closer to the vision of equal access to opportunity for everyone in our country.
We could go on for days pointing to examples of why this information is important, and we will if we need to. For now, though, we urge you to think about that shared vision we’ve embraced as a country – equal access to opportunity – and in particular, how critical data can be in making that vision a reality.
We understand “database[s] of geospatial information” may sound boring or irrelevant, but the language in Section 3 is broad enough that it would affect everyone. The impact could stretch from hospitals to state employees, government contractors to schools and daycare centers. We urge you to contact your elected officials to express your thoughts on these bills as proposed. A letter from the American Association of Geographers has already been submitted, and we’ll keep you posted with any further developments as the bills move through committee.