Environmental Justice User Group Brainstorming Meeting Recap

by Bob Gradeck

March 8, 2016


The purpose of the meeting held on February 24th at the Oakland Forbes Avenue Panera was to brainstorm, discuss, and refine ideas for an event and other activities to allow the broader community to develop insights about environmental issues that impact community health.

12 people attended the meeting, and the conversation helped to frame an event that the Regional Data Center will hold later in 2016. It’s possible that this event can coincide with the National Day of Civic Hacking held each June.

The meeting started with a discussion of issues or domains that can be the focus of a proposed event. Topics mentioned include water quality, vacant land, housing quality, brownfields, illegal dumping, stormwater, resilience, air quality, radon, asthma, asset mapping, and disparities in environmental assets.


It was suggested that we choose an issue that the County Health Department, other governmental organizations, and nonprofit partners have some ability to influence through policy and enforcement actions.

We were also encouraged to provide event participants living in affected communities with concrete opportunities to improve their environment. Residents already realize they confront potentially serious issues, and it doesn’t do their communities any help by simply shaming them through data. We must provide participants and residents with an opportunity to improve environmental conditions. Structuring interactions and interventions in a positive way is essential. Examples of communities with positive data-driven interactions include Homewood (designing safe routes to school) and  Beltzhoover (vacant lot action teams).

It’s also important to understand the implications of data-driven decisionmaking. We should aim to do no harm. In another city, an effort to predict property abandonment resulted in code violations filed against struggling homeowners that could not pay fines, which led to even more abandonment.  On a related note, I like this blog post from FabRiders “Questions to Ask Frequently (QAFs) when working with Data and Marginalized Communities.”

Event Structure

Several formats for the event were discussed, and participants suggested we further explore the data dive format as one that can engage people with data analysis skills (following the meeting, we also stumbled across the data expedition format). We will hold a pre-event to assemble and process data necessary for the event itself and prepare user guides or other documentation.

We were also encouraged to provide opportunities for those with less experience working with data to be involved. Ideas discussed include having people from affected communities talk to or pair with the data analysts and programmers about how environmental issues affect their lives. This type of partnership would help provide essential context to those working with the data. A series of training workshops followed by community data collection activities can also present resident engagement opportunities.

The discussion group also felt that it would be best to organize the work around research questions related to a common theme. We will solicit questions from residents, leaders of community organizations, policymakers, and subject matter experts. The two most interesting themes/issues for an event included vacant property and water quality, with vacant property the most-popular choice among attendees.

Next Steps

We’ll talk to interested stakeholders and potential partners in an event, and also explore the applicability of several different engagement models. We’ll also learn more about the different policy and enforcement mechanisms our work can inform. We will then share a more-detailed concept with members of the user group and other stakeholders.

As part of our user group activities, we’re also starting work on a user guide for the Allegheny County Health Department’s air quality data, and will develop other training materials on how to use and interpret air quality data.

Please let us know if you’d like to be involved in any of our work.

Following the meeting, the Federal government launched the Opportunity Project earlier this week. I encourage you to give it a look.