As part of its commitment to pioneering a data-driven culture in Colorado’s social sector, The Piton Foundation’s Data Initiative, recently convened metro Denver’s data community for the first annual Mile High Data Day. More than 120 representatives from across the region attended the daylong event, which provided an opportunity to build relationships, share best practices, learn from experts and strengthen partnerships between social change and data organizations. In addition to the Data Initiative, Mile High Day Day’s key partners included Mile High Connects, University of Colorado Denver, the Denver Regional Council of Governments, and OpenColorado.
Mile High Data Day’s goal was to create a network focused on using open data to make more informed decisions and support community change. The following are some main takeaways from the event:
Data is about people: Throughout the day, participants were seeking formal and informal opportunities to network with each other, and it became clear that a space is needed where advocates for open data can come together to make stronger connections across their areas of work. Mile High Data Day provided a glimpse into what is possible if we begin bridging all these well-intentioned efforts.
Denver has an appetite for data: Denver and Colorado are at the forefront of the open data movement, and nonprofits, government and academia all have the desire to create a stronger network focused on using data to improve communities.
Data utilization for case-making, advocacy and social change: The overall conversation was still very rooted in the effort to open data, but there were hints at how data is being incorporated into active decision-making processes. For example, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment is working to gain internal approval for sharing more community-level data and simultaneously incorporating it into their grant-making activities. This approach accomplishes two goals: it empowers prospective grantees; and the agency gains confidence in the process when allocating their limited financial resources.
Capacity-building around data utilization is key to driving social change: Open data advocates and those focused on using data to support social change are somewhat disconnected. More engagement is needed at the grassroots level so that communities are better equipped to use data to defend their positions. We must provide social change organizations with the necessary technical assistance to understand the sourcing, analysis and interpretation of data. Some event participants were not familiar with margins of error, which proves that serving up data in a consumable format does not mean users will correctly apply it to their work.
Healthy Places: Designing an Active Colorado, an initiative of the Colorado Health Foundation, was engineered to increase physical activity in three communities including the southeast portion of Arvada, the city of Lamar and the Westwood neighborhood in southwest Denver. Characterized as low-income and experiencing greater than average health disparities, these three communities face significant barriers to physical activity due to the built environment. It is important to note that the average low-income household spends 25.3 percent of their monthly income on transportation costs, compared to 17.1 percent for the entire population. Healthy Places seeks to improve the built environment in these communities through improving safety and infrastructure.
Community engagement is and will continue to be a key element of Healthy Places. It has helped inform tailored recommendations from an expert panel of Urban Land Institute (ULI) members and played a crucial role in the prioritization and selection process. Community members will continue their involvement as the work moves into the implementation phase. In developing recommendations, ULI was given the guidelines to prioritize walking and biking as safe, viable, and enjoyable modes of transportation and recreation through the community. Additionally, ULI was tasked with developing solutions to fill the gaps in pedestrian and bicycle networks needed to create a continuous interconnected system.
All three communities are hard at work to create healthy places including the creation of new parks or renovation of old ones. Some projects include building the 7-mile Lamar loop, designing a Skateboard and BMX Park and many others. Here’s a few examples of transit-related efforts currently underway:
Healthy Places: Designing an Active Arvada
• Sidewalks are being installed on W. 60th Ave. (at Sheridan and 60th Ave.) between Lamar and Sheridan as a key pedestrian connection to the Gold Strike Station.
• Pedestrian level wayfinding signage is being installed throughout southeast Arvada to connect residents from the neighborhoods, to parks, community gardens, transit centers and grocery stores.
• Weekly bike rides take place every weekend from April through October and include tours of the three transit stations in Arvada to help residents navigate to them safely.
• A bike corral and on-street parking facility, that can accommodate many more bikes than a typical sidewalk rack, is being piloted in Olde Town Arvada during the summer of 2015. It will be installed permanently in 2016 prior to the opening of the Olde Town transit hub.
Healthy Places: Designing an Active Westwood
• Westwood residents, 9to5 Colorado and Westwood Unidos, rallied together to petition the Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD) to reinstate Route 4 public bus service on Morrison Rd. Westwood residents and community organizations turned out in mass at RTD route service change meetings. Residents shared their personal stories about relying on public transportation for various needs such as commuting to work, sending children to school and visiting the doctor. In February 2015 the RTD board voted ‘Yes’ to Route 4 on Morrison Rd.
• Community members and organizations participated in the Callejón de la Amistad, or Friendship Alleyway, to transform what was once a dumping ground and graffiti-ridden alleyway into a safe and colorful place to play and walk to school. The design is based on the ideas and creativity of Westwood residents. On Aug. 24, the Westwood neighborhood celebrated the Friendship Alleyway Inauguration, which is located on S. Lowell St. between W. Virginia Ave. and W. Custer Pl.
Research shows that transit-dependent riders struggle to find an option for safe, affordable and reliable travel between their homes, transit stations, work and other destinations. The Foundation, a proud partner of Mile High Connects, is working through initiatives like Healthy Places to create more active communities near transit stops with the goal of increasing access to places where Coloradans live, work and play.
Whether people can afford bus and light rail fares is one of the most fundamental issues to whether a transit system really serves its public. If I were being really honest (and I am), I would share that it took Mile High Connects a couple of years to understand this really basic issue. We started our collaborative with great ideas about getting more affordable housing near transit, connecting local workers to jobs in transit areas and making sure that services like health and education were easy to get to through light rail. And then, after hundreds of conversations with community members, we finally got it – if people can’t afford to even get on the bus or the light rail, it doesn’t matter if that health clinic is located near a transit stop or that they live in housing right next to a station.
At the beginning of 2014, we began exploring what it would look like to work more intentionally on affordability of bus and light rail fares. RTD was getting ready to undertake a study of its fare structure, fare cost and pass programs, so it seemed like a great time to begin to work with them on how we could address the challenge of affordability.
Our effort began small – 10 organizations around a table describing the ways that affordability of fares impacted their constituents. Over the course of the year, as that group became 40, then 70, then 120 with participants from every sector – nonprofit, business, government, philanthropy – we realized just how hungry people were to talk about something they see every day in a meaningful, solution-oriented way.
Throughout the year, we worked closely with staff at RTD, co-hosting three targeted focus groups for nonprofits, participating their Local Government Stakeholders convenings, attending all eleven of the public input sessions on the Fare Study and meeting whenever possible with staff on the issue. We applauded RTD for opening up the process to public input, came to them with specific ideas we were working on to get at the affordability question and encouraged them to work with our growing coalition even more deeply to delve into solutions in a way that was generative, creative and helped to address community need.
Because of this, I have to admit that I was surprised at last week’s update to the RTD Board Operations and Customer Service Committee on the Fare Study. A board member asked specifically whether any ideas had been generated by those in the community interested in affordability and staff responded “no”. Staff also shared that the opportunity for feedback would be limited to a formal public hearing model for the next phase of the study.
In reality, there are any number of very specific ideas being explored, tested, talked through and pondered. Ranging from ways that you could make an income-based pass and fare system work to changes to the Business and Neighborhood EcoPass Programs to enhancements to the Nonprofit Agency Reduced Fare Program, a large group of interested and informed stakeholders from every sector are thoughtfully working to figure out how to tackle this complex, critical issue. We continue to invite RTD staff to engage with us, to think with us, to explore with us and to continue on the path they were walking down throughout the course of last year to meaningfully engage community in their process. Productive dialogue is important for the best solutions to emerge. We encourage and look forward to continued, deepening and expanding opportunities for partnership for the benefit of the community at large.