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Historically, Black and brown communities tend to face the harshest realities of any disaster, but for those living in Florida’s oft-overlooked panhandle, COVID-19 provided an opportunity to use data to guide more just and equitable responses to the current crisis. Many at-risk and underserved communities have in fact been preparing for an instance like a pandemic. In assessing the damage wreaked by the virus, groups that have been collecting and analyzing data to address the unmet needs of marginalized communities in the region are proactively using that data to direct pandemic relief initiatives.

“Data is a way to work together to solve some common problems,” said Janice Lucas, the Executive Director of the Leadership, Empowerment, Authentic Development Coalition (LEAD), a local convener of the Resilient American Communities (RAC), a multi-organizational enterprise that includes civil society, private, and public organizations.  

During the pandemic, when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis claimed that “[the state doesn’t] have disparities by race,” community leaders in the panhandle’s Bay County knew that they couldn’t depend on the DeSantis administration to adequately address the needs of residents. Instead, BIPOC Bay County leaders partnered with LEAD to use information feeds that had previously helped shape hurricane disaster responses in the area to guide relief efforts for the pandemic. The end results reflect how transforming data engagement skills from one social issue to another while leveraging community knowledge in data models can—and should—be scalable throughout the U.S.

Utilizing multiple approaches to data collection

Bay County, Florida is the first U.S. RAC model to use both bottom-up and top-down data sharing to address COVID-19 conditions. Instead of choosing one of two approaches—gathering general data and then drilling down into the specifics, or beginning with data related to specific needs before widening to a more general approach—RAC Bay County used both. 

Working with Jan Booher, director of Civic Engagement & Training for RAC, RAC Bay County leaders learned how to address health and safety in their communities based on the best available data. They became adept in scrutinizing the Florida Department of Health’s COVID-19 data by race and ethnicity, and gathering their own data on community needs by using phone apps like the Fulcrum platform and maintaining their own data spreadsheets. That data was then used to help drive initiatives and programs to benefit the community. For example, after observing that social pressure to show up at church made many funerals into spreader events, community leaders were able to encourage people to move to graveside services and worked with pastors to livestream events. 

For Booher, it’s essential to “listen to community leaders and co-design with them what they need” rather than coming in with preconceived notions. This sets up the people Booher trains for success after she’s turned over admin access to the data collection dashboard at the end of training. RAC Bay County now controls the data it collects and team members meet weekly to review what comes in through community monitored dashboards, compare that information with community observations, news reports, and social media videos, and use that data to guide what pandemic-related issues need to be addressed.  

Uncovering a more detailed picture

Area leaders have been using this data-first approach to serve the needs of their community since 2014, and the data clearly shows numerous disparities in the state affecting marginalized racial and ethnic groups. For example, after Hurricane Michael hit in 2018, data provided by community dashboards revealed that one of the key factors slowing rebuilds in impoverished neighborhoods is that 70% of the homes in those census tracts are rental properties, which take less priority than owner-occupied homes in disaster recovery efforts. They also found that benign neglect plays a significant role, as damage and maintenance to impoverished areas and parks are often left untended.

Collaborative use of data is at the heart of RAC Bay County’s work. When Bay County community leaders reached out to LEAD, Lucas brought in thinkers and doers “who would not be bored with the disaggregation of data.” The cohort included people like Dr. J. Dia Green-Jones, a fourth generation Black American from the nearby rural town of Vernon who holds a degree in educational leadership, and community health connectors like Tony Bostick, a former military man who describes himself as a systems thinker and suffered many family losses to the pandemic.

The data gathered about COVID-19’s effects on marginalized communities in Florida wasn’t just used to illuminate how the pandemic affected the death rate among BIPOC from the virus and how to mitigate it. It helped community leaders to better understand how a population’s ability to both survive and recover from the pandemic deeply depends on access to social support initiatives and resources.

“There’s two things about COVID: one is lives. Then there’s livelihoods,” Lucas observed. 

Zeroing in on social determinants of health as the bridge out of COVID-19, RAC Bay County collected data by conducting needs assessments with members of the community. They found that three quarters of the population didn’t have access to Wi-Fi or the internet, so many of the workers left literature at people’s doors. They also surveyed people by phone and in person, often holding interviews at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store. 

What they learned was shocking: nearly 44.5% of people said they could not manage 1-2 weeks on their last paychecks if their workplace closed. Food was the biggest need for 32% of people in the early stages of the pandemic. That information was crucial to accurately prioritizing what community needs required immediate attention. 

“[What we learned] became the basis of their workshops and services: food assistance, finance workshops, and information sessions to show them how to access financial support services,” Booher said. 

Wider applications for COVID-related data

RAC Bay County has since moved to tracking vaccination equity. The state government’s Emergency Management department shut down their operations in May, so there are no more community-run vaccination sites. Vaccines in Florida are now only available at pharmacies and doctor’s offices.

“What we are seeing from the data, which we look at daily, is that COVID rates are going up, after having flatlined, but vaccine momentum has plummeted considerably,” Lucas said. 

Current vaccination rates as of mid July are 40% in Florida, but vaccination rates in Hispanic communities are increasing, presumably because of concerted engagement efforts from the Catholic community to turn people out for large events and charities, and schools encouraging attendees to get vaccinated by their doctor or at a local pharmacy. Additionally, to help identify where vaccination rates were low, RAC Bay County created clickable heatmaps, which show user behavior on webpages. By monitoring internet activity in the county, the heatmaps helped identify where vulnerable communities were located and how to get to them. 

Housing is another area of need affecting COVID-19 risk that was identified through Mission Critical Functions Surveys, as both home density and homelessness compound health issues. Many Black and brown communities were already dealing with housing issues that had been compounded by Hurricane Michael, and the pandemic only further exacerbated the situation. Whether depending on rent or homeownership, Black and brown communities are struggling to both rebuild their homes and obtain housing, all under the looming shadow of gentrification. Doorways of NWFL, the Housing and Urban Development Continuum of Care Agency in the Central Florida Panhandle, has been providing emergency shelter funds and rapid re-housing to help people get into housing, thanks to grant assistance. 

“The challenge is rental rates are astronomical so people at the lower end [of income] can’t afford the $1200-$1300/month rent for the apartments,” Lucas said. “We can help people with a deposit and two months rent to allow them to address things financially.” 

LEAD is currently working with Panama City and Florida State University to run educational workshops on sustainable and affordable housing for people in the community to prevent gentrification of those neighborhoods. 

“In places where there is gentrification pressure, there is no hurry to rebuild the way the community wants to rebuild,” Lucas said.

Having the knowledge and tools to navigate government bureaucracy, obtain permits, and take more control over what’s built on their property can empower people to make the changes they need and want in their communities. The data tools RAC Bay County uses have made a positive difference in directing housing initiatives to where communities need them, and will be even more crucial in the coming housing crisis. The original COVID-19 related eviction moratorium expired at the end of July, and while the CDC instituted an additional 60-day residential eviction moratorium on Aug. 3 due to rising infection rates from the Delta variant, for many at-risk people, the new moratorium is too little, too late.

“We are using toolsets we had for COVID to confront these inequities,” Lucas said. 

Coalitions like RAC Bay County are continually using a data engagement approach to determine how to best meet their communities’ needs. Not only does utilizing data allow for more accurately tailored disaster responses, it also means that under-resourced communities are more likely to get the support they need to both survive and recover from inevitable future disasters. By relying on data to direct COVID-19 responses, BIPOC residents in Bay County have shown that it’s both possible and necessary to scale technology throughout the country to leverage community resilience. 

From Bollywood to Nigeria, Ambika has been creating, teaching and writing at the intersection of storytelling and social good for two decades. She believes in working with local teams, developing work...