Why Helmsley’s Betting Big on Data Sharing in New York City

New York is a big, complicated city with enormous problems, and funders can struggle to figure out where the biggest local needs are. Meanwhile, a great many foundations these days are tantalized by advances in big data illuminating any number of issues. So here's an obvious idea: using big data to get a better fix on the challenges facing America's biggest city. 

The Helmsley Charitable Trust is a New York-based funder with a strong belief in data, and it's been supporting Measure of America’s DATA2GO.NYC mapping and data tool. In 2014, the funder put an initial $731,974 toward this project to consolidate local, state, and federal data about needs, resources, and outcomes to create an insightful depiction of life in each New York City neighborhood. Now, this tool has launched and is being put to work in New York’s 59 community districts.

Related: Oh, Right, Help Thy Neighbor: Helmsley Takes on New York's Problems

Some of the data shared will include homelessness, philanthropic giving, police activity, and health information. A DATA2GO.NYC Visualization Challenge has kicked off, too, with $2,000 at stake for the top individual or group that draws the most compelling connections between the data indicators.

Those indicators span the following 12 areas: Demographics; Education; Environment; Food Systems; Health; Housing & Infrastructure; Philanthropy; Political Engagement; Public Funding & Services; Safety & Security; Work, Wealth & Poverty; and the American Human Development Index, a composite measure of health (life expectancy at birth), education (degree attainment and enrollment), and standard of living (median personal earnings).

By this point, Helmsley’s total support for the project has reached nearly $1 million: $731,794 to build the tool, and an additional $222,000 to promote its use by city agencies, graduate students and people who will participate in the challenge. Targeted users of this data are policymakers, community-based organizations, philanthropists, social service delivery agencies, and journalists working to improve life in the city.

To get a better perspective about what makes this such an attractive funding opportunity and where Helmsley local grantmaking is headed next, I connected with Tamara Fox, program director for the foundation’s New York City regional grants program.

What makes this mapping and data tool stand out from other efforts to identify local needs in New York City?

For the first time, anyone can access federal, state and local data vital to understanding human needs in one single place in New York City. Data2Go.NYC offers a powerful, nuanced picture of human needs by complementing economic metrics with information across the many sectors that impact the lives of New Yorkers.

Who will benefit from using the Measure of America mapping tool the most?

Data2Go will be extremely beneficial to anyone working to effect positive change in New York City—whether it be government agencies using the data to inform policy decisions, foundations looking to identify funding priorities, nonprofit organizations using the tool to map out where their services are needed most, or researchers or citizens who want to ask questions using a wide array of data, sometimes finding answers and sometimes helping to frame bigger questions.

So far in 2015, where have you and the Helmsley staff felt that the greatest challenges are in New York City?

The Helmsley Charitable Trust launched its New York City Regional Grants Program in 2014, setting out to take a highly data-driven approach to helping New Yorkers in need. As we began to develop the Trust’s New York City Regional Grants Program, we expected to find and utilize rich data and information about the region’s needs, but a full and well-organized portrait of the many factors that influence the city’s social and economic needs did not exist. We know that our need for this kind of integrated data tool is shared by many, and now we look forward to utilizing Data2Go to better understand reliable and unbiased information across sectors. 

How do you anticipate that the results of this study will impact Helmsley's local giving in the future?

As members of the nonprofit community focused on helping people in need, we and other organizations will now have access to data to inform our choices around how we deploy resources, how we define need and whether we’re having real impact over time.

Data2Go.NYC provides a crucial bedrock of information for the future endeavors of the Trust’s New York City Program and all other organizations working to tackle critical local issues.

Will emergency food assistance continue to be the top priority for local giving in 2016?

Yes, we continue to work with city and state government and some of the largest and most dedicated nonprofit leaders working to reduce food insecurity and feed hungry New Yorkers.  One element of that work has been to improve measures of food insecurity by neighborhood, and to target investments in priority neighborhoods where there are the most profound differences between what is needed and what is currently available. Data2Go.NYC will be a valuable source of information about these priority neighborhoods.