Indianapolis is making key data sets – or vital signs – acessible to the public, to ensure all citizens and groups are involved in neighbourhood planning. The proliferation of public-private partnerships and NGOs in modern cities can fragment decision-making, and finding a set of data recognised by all stakeholders can be difficult. Indy Vitals draws together one coherent set of metrics, with data like housing values and unemployment rates, which aim to gauge the economic and physical health of the city.
Results & Impact
Indy Vitals is used by organisations across the city - both public and private - to help direct decision-making and planning. Community organisations and small NGOs use the data to apply for funding, businesses use it to find new opportunities, and citizens can use it to advocate for improvements in their neighbourhoods. The city itself has used Indy Vitals to determine Plan2020, an ambitious bicentennial plan for the development of the city.
City of Indianapolis and Marion County, Polis Centre, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, Indianapolis Neighbourhood Housing Partnership, Urban Institute, National Neighbourhood Indicators Partnership
Indy Vitals collects data from public and private organisations into a set of key metrics for each of the neighbourhoods in Indianapolis. Together, these metrics - for instance a neighbourhood's housing density and high school graduation rate - describe the economic health of each neighbourhood. By drawing together key statistics, the city aims to encourage collective problem-solving between public and private organisations, NGOs and citizens themselves. The idea is to provide them with a coherent story to work around, rather than disparate sources of data. They use the metrics to inform centralised planning, and to allow local groups a trusted and recognised source of data on which to base their own activities. The Indy Vitals platform was created by the Polis Center at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, which works in partnership with the city to direct planning.
City dwellers, low-income people
Cost & Value
Polis received a grant of $100,000, which was used to build the system and provide locals with training to use it.
Running since 2016
Indy Vitals works by replacing the hundreds of self-defined neighbourhoods in the city with 99 new neighbourhood areas. These are designed to condense the different neighbourhoods into one logical pattern that will allow comparison between areas. Some residents were initially confused that official neighbourhood boundaries were submerged in these 99 groups. Polis makes the case that there needs to be a concentrated and coherent methodology in order to tell a clear, accessible story with the data.
The Indy Vitals framework can be implemented relatively easily in other cities, but requires political commitment. Polis has replicated the system in another city in the US, which it declined to name, but the project fell apart due to budget cuts and a leadership change. The city failed to engage the different groups which would use the data, leaving too few to argue for the project's final implementation.
Indianapolis is tracking and making vital neighbourhood data public to better include all groups in city planning decisions.
More and more, modern cities are controlled by a variety of bodies: government itself, but also private contractors, non-governmental organisations and community groups. Working out how to manage and coordinate these different bodies is difficult; reaching agreement on how a city is performing and which data to trust can be even harder.
“We realised that to do planning in this city, we had to do a better job coordinating all of the different people doing the planning,”said Brad Beaubien, an administrator for the Division of Long Range Planning for the City of Indianapolis and Marion County.
“Whereas, in the past, it was city government doing the planning, now it’s more of a network of players across the city. We needed to develop a tool that we could all use so that we all see the same story.”
“We were just trying to present information in meaningful ways – basically providing a story”
Indy Vitals is the city’s attempt to tell this story. Developed by the Polis Center at Indiana University, the tool pulls together publicly available data from public and private sources into a set of key vitals signs for each of Indianapolis’ neighbourhoods. These describe the economic and environmental health of each area, their demographic mix, and the built environment.
“Indy Vitals is really intended to measure the health and sustainability of neighbourhoods in Indianapolis,” said Sharon Kandris, associate director of the Polis Center. “We were just trying to present information in meaningful ways so that people can really understand what some of those issues are – basically providing a story.”
The city uses the Indy Vitals metrics to direct urban planning by bringing the different groups and stakeholders around the same set of mutually recognised statistics. By providing a common set of statistics at a neighbourhood level, the city aims to be inclusive in its planning, and provide for all of its citizens.
“It doesn’t make sense for us to have a one-size-fits-all solution”
“Indy Vitals was my attempt at using data to tell a common story across different partners,” said Beaubien. “On a top level it allows us to quickly identify what the biggest challenges that different areas of our community have – we’re 400 square miles of geography and close to a million people. Each and every one of those square miles and each of those people has a different experience. It doesn’t make sense for us to have a one-size-fits-all solution.”
Accounting for the different neighbourhoods within a city itself is rare. Some of the world’s largest cities have difficulty collecting a commonly recognised set of data that explains the economic differences between the districts within it. In London, pulling together data involves negotiation, time and effort.
Indy Vitals provides data at three different magnifications, in order to be accessible to residents and citizens, policymakers, and data scientists. The vital signs rank neighbourhood indicators in relation to others in Indianapolis. Users can also access the raw data and information on the links between metrics.
The data has helped organisations on every level and character access new opportunities. Small NGOs use the statistics to apply for grants, as has Indianapolis’ Neighbourhood Housing Partnerships.
The data is freely accessible. In theory, it allows residents to make their own case for reform, and hold government accountable for its planning decisions, though Beaubien said that this is yet to happen.
“I’ve not yet had a neighbourhood come to me on the accountability side, saying you guys are proposing this, but the data says we need is this – that hasn’t happened yet,” said Beaubien. “But it’s an exciting opportunity for neighbourhoods to hold policymakers both here in government and also non-profit organisations to account.”
Currently, small NGOs are using the data and the maps and visualisations for grant applications and to support their programs. It provides the empirical support these small organisations need to make their cases for funding.
Indy Vitals was built using a $100,000 grant and has been running since summer 2016. It builds on a tradition of data-informed policy in Indianapolis, and uses data from the SAVI community information system, which has been used by the city to inform policy and planning in the past.
In 2017, the system was awarded a prize from Urisa for geospatial excellence in government, and the Polis Center has attempted to replicate the technology in another US city, which they declined to name. Although they successfully transferred the system, the project collapsed due to budget cuts and a leadership change.
“Data is critical to these systems, but an often overlooked but important aspect is the relationship building,” said Kandris. “To be sustainable, it requires an investment of time to educate the target audience, stakeholders, and funders on the value of data, communications, outreach and capacity building. Without these components, the funding and sustainability falls apart.”
“Planning is driven by the voices you hear from,” said Beaubien. “By trying to expand the number of voices we hear, we hope we can design a plan that has spoken to more people than in the past.”
(Picture credit: Flickr/Serge Melki)