NNIP Milwaukee Recap

by Bob Gradeck

June 17, 2019

Since 2008, the Center for Social and Urban Research has been the Pittsburgh partner of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP), a peer learning network of community data intermediaries. The work of NNIP is supported and coordinated by the Urban Institute, and there are partners in over 30 cities. It’s critical to our work to be connected to peers that do similar work in other communities, and NNIP enables us to make connections with similar organizations. These interactions give us new ideas, provide opportunities to collaborate with people in  and also enable us to tell the story about what we’ve done here in our community. 

The annual partner meeting took place this year in Milwaukee Wisconsin, and the organizers at the Urban Institute and our gracious hosts at our NNIP partner Data You Can Use made it a great event. Here are a few takeaways from the partner meeting and my experience in Milwaukee.

  • We learned a lot about the new Federal Opportunity Zone program thanks to Brett Theodos of the Urban Institute. Included as part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the Opportunity Zone program is designed to allow people to defer capital gains taxes if they make contributions to funds that make equity investments in specially designated communities across the country. While the program is not limited to real estate, there is fear that the incentive will spur speculation in communities where residents are already worried about rapidly appreciating real estate. Our presenter also acknowledged that the program may not spur development in places with few investment opportunities. When it comes to the data, we learned that it would take an act of Congress for the Opportunity Zone Census Tract designations to change following the next Census. There are also  few requirements for opportunity funds to report their investments in a publicly-accessible fashion, so it will be important to track  property sales, building permit, and lending data to understand the impact of the program in local communities.
  • Partners in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Baltimore, and Durham discussed how they are approaching their relationships with advocacy organizations. Data intermediaries are in an important position to leverage data to benefit historically marginalized and oppressed people, and can expand their impact by working with advocates. At the same time, intermediaries are also challenged to maintain their reputation as a trusted place for community information when they partner with people that have a strong point of view on an issue. Some of the ways that our partners are able to maintain their brand as a trusted intermediary include being open and transparent about their relationship with advocates, asking that advocacy partners allow them to review any data being released or analyzed for accuracy prior to publishing, and to share their data and recommendations with people on all sides of an issue. To work in a trusted way with advocates, our partners encouraged us to build relationships with organizations by working at the same table with them, and doing what we can do to support them. The presenters finally  encouraged us to be comfortable going outside of “our lane” in order to have a larger impact in the community.
  • I also am thinking about implementing some of the ideas shared in a session about how to get influence through partnerships with local media from my co-panelists in Los Angeles and New Orleans. The number of staff and revenues at local newspapers have been rapidly shrinking, and turnover is the norm among journalists and publications. Trying to gain influence through media in the current climate has become much harder as a result. Intermediaries that choose to work with the media will need to invest time in building and maintaining relationships with journalists. One of the panelists suggested scheduling a standing monthly meeting with local outlets, which is something that we’d like to adopt. Framing stories in addition to releasing data will also make it more-likely that journalists will turn data into stories for their audience. Even highly-skilled journalists lack the time to pore through a dataset to find a narrative. One of our partners that used to work in a local newspaper also shared that some journalists may be given a quota of website hits they’re responsible for, so those operating under this sort of performance structure may be most-receptive to clickbait-friendly content. We were also encouraged to invite journalists to participate in workshops we may offer that can help them build their data skills, and we should do what we can to be available for interviews with print, online, and television journalists.
  • I was humbled to receive the Network Steward of the Year Award from my peers. It is important for everyone involved in a peer learning network like NNIP to make a  contribution to the health of the community, whether it’s by attending the partner meetings, documenting work, or sharing advice.

If your version of heaven consists of beer, cheese, pretzels, and sausage, then it would look a lot like Milwaukee. I had a great time exploring the City for the first time. The most-interesting thing I saw on my trip was the diorama of the Usinger’s Famous Sausage shop, which included marshmallow peeps. This diorama can be found on the counter of the real-life store and factory in downtown, Milwaukee.