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Mobtown Beat

Just the Facts

New Nonprofit Angles to Empower Communities Through Information

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 9/12/2001

Information is power, it's said. And this is, after all, the Information Age. Federal, state, and local governments have piles of demographic and other data at their disposal to help make law and policy and distribute public dollars. Corporations have massive databases with which to track, among other things, who's buying what, and where, and why.

For the average citizen working to better a Baltimore neighborhood, however, obtaining current and accurate information--be it the number of vacant houses, census data, or the latest crime stats--can be difficult. So many different sources. So much red tape. So little time. But these problems may meet up with solutions in the weeks ahead, as a handful of local nonprofits roll out the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance (BNIA), a three-years-in-the-making attempt to assemble a comprehensive, integrated, and accessible neighborhood-information system.

"There has never been a 'one-stop shop' where you could get data and information in Baltimore," BNIA director Odette Ramos says. "You could go to the city and maybe get some of the data, but often only after a runaround. We're providing the information that people never had easy access to before."

"One continuing source of frustration for everybody involved in neighborhood activities is the absence of reliable data," concurs Timothy Armbruster, president of the Morris Goldseker Foundation, which is helping pay for the project. "We and some of our colleague foundations share this frustration."

The information BNIA is collecting spans issues that impact communities most: housing, transportation, economic development, sanitation, health, public safety, demographics, education, the environment. A large portion of it comes by way of Baltimore City's various departments and agencies, which Ramos says have been "generally good" about making information available to her organization. Other data come from state agencies, the U.S. Census Bureau, local colleges and universities, and private-sector commercial sources that provide information for a fee.

Much of BNIA's database will be available to the public at no charge via its Web site, www.bnia.org, which is slated for launch at the end of September. (Subscriber information that BNIA pays for, however, will only be accessible at its office at 100 E. 23rd St.) The site's key feature is an interactive geo-mapping program that divides Baltimore City into 55 communities (through combinations of contiguous census tracts), allowing users to pull up graphic information on specific sections of the city. The maps provide a street-level snapshot of a community, showing housing conditions, crime rates, poverty levels, and the like.

"When you portray data in maps, you can see what's really going on in a neighborhood--you get the whole picture," Ramos says. "You can see where concentrations of things are happening. The data becomes understandable and useable and can help develop an effective community plans."

BNIA's map-based approach to displaying data is much like the CitiStat program implemented by Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration in June 2000, which also uses mapping software to monitor municipal conditions and help departments allocate and target resources. Where it differs is in making communities partners in collecting and analyzing information and tailoring the process to specific neighborhood needs.

BNIA piloted this approach last spring by enlisting volunteers from the Greater Northwest Community Coalition to survey every building in their neighborhood and rate each structure on a five-point scale from "excellent" to "dilapidated." The data, collected on handheld Palm Pilots, was used to create a color-coded map graphically showing which sections of the neighborhood are sound, which are at risk of decay, and which need immediate attention. With such info in hand, the BNIA thinking goes, neighborhood groups can prepare revitalization and development plans, activists are better prepared to seek grants or advocate for city funds, and the effectiveness of improvement schemes can be more readily measured. "Basically," Ramos says, "we're empowering neighborhoods so that they can do their jobs better."

Once the Web site is up and running, BNIA will turn its attention to locating permanent office space, where computers will be available for community use. (Ramos hopes to have the office up and running next month.) BNIA will also provide a so-called "technical assistance tool kit," which Ramos and fellow staffer Nidhi Tomar are developing to show community leaders how to use the data in neighborhood-enhancement efforts.

The concept powering BNIA is nothing new; it follows several, only marginally successful attempts to empower communities on the development and revitalization fronts, including the Neighborhood Congress, launched in 1999 to give citizens a more integral role in city government, and PlanBaltimore, an ongoing program in which neighborhoods are ostensibly teaming with planning officials to create a citywide development blueprint. And nationally, BNIA already has numerous sister organizations linked by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Casey funds the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, which has spawned community data systems in a dozen U.S. cities. In 1998 the foundation approached the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers, a consortium of philanthropic groups, about bringing the concept to Baltimore. A number of local funders joined the effort, including the Goldseker, Baltimore Community, and Blaustein foundations. BNIA was formally organized in 1998 with a $400,000 budget and has much of its $300,000 in annual operating funds guaranteed through 2004.

Still, fund-raising is an "ongoing effort," says Ramos, a Charles Village community organizer and Neighborhood Congress leader who was tapped to head BNIA last year. However, she says her first priority is to get the system up and running.

Goldseker's Armbruster predicts that his foundation and others will be among those using BNIA's resources to "figure ways to track how neighborhoods are doing in terms of their social and economic health." But he warns against BNIA trying to do too much too soon, especially in regards to having communities gather their own data.

"If the data [are] not usable, intelligible, and have a practical application, then it's just a data-gathering exercise," he says. "I don't think anybody wants any more exercises."

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