How Census data can address health disparities in Illinois

Q&A: How Census data can address health disparities in Illinois

Zoomed into Illinois State University on Monday to address the 2023 Minority Health Conference. His virtual keynote speech covered how health professionals, including McLean County locals, can use Census tools and data to reduce health disparities.

His address was titled “Framing Health Research for Communities of Color and the Census Bureau Data That Enable It.”

Santos spoke with WGLT after the speech to share his insights.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

WGLT: I would like to begin by addressing the first half of your address. How should we frame health research?

Santos: What I did in the first part was talk about the value of bringing the whole self to the table in terms of creating additional environments to gain new insights. So we are talking about bringing your values, your culture, and your life experience, as well as your technical training, to answer research questions. And when you do that, you can create unique insights that are your own, which will add insight that otherwise would not have been achieved.

What did we do wrong? How can we improve the way we frame our health research?

Santos: Well, what I want to see is that there is no wrong and no right. There is always something better and more understandable. That means that in addition to the typical things taught by professors and researchers to students about how to approach particular social problems with analytic data, you allow time for people to reflect on the use of their culture, their values, and their life experiences because that can end up creating a different set of more relevant questions to ask and a different way of looking at the information collected and the inferences of the insights you have to add value.

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This conference, the Minority Health Conference, focuses on health equity and racial equity. So if you can talk about that issue and how that plays out here, and also the census and how it works,

Santos: The equity issue—it’s always there. However, you won’t know this unless you have data to show or an evidence base. What I’m doing today at this conference is offering a wide variety of census data products that can be used to help explain, identify, and then recognize the inequities that exist in our society, whether it’s race, gender, whatever.

Can you give an example of one of the injustices we see today?

Santos: Indeed, there are inequities that can be shown in our census data about people’s vulnerability to natural disasters. We have a tool called Community Resilience Estimates that shows the risk factors associated with different communities and neighborhoods within communities at the Census Tract level. And one can easily find that communities that have historically been communities of color also tend to have higher levels of risk factors in terms of poverty, car availability, access to broadband, access to health insurance, unemployment, and more. And that means that those communities with higher levels of risk factors that tend to be communities of color will have a harder time responding to a flood, a natural disaster like a wildfire, a snowstorm, or a tornado.

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Finally, how do we use this data? How can this data inform the community level, affecting even the local community here in McLean County, Bloomington-Normal?

Santos: We have data tools that we created and that are available today that are easy ​​​​for community members to access and absorb. These are data visualizations that start with a map of the United States, and then you can—just by clicking on different geographies—go to the state level, county level, city level, Census Tract level, and sometimes even the block level of the group, depending on the data products. There are tools like My Community Explorer, which are good at identifying demographics and painting a picture of who a local community is at the Census Tract level. We have a census business builder that does the same but also adds economic data, so you can look at things like customer base. If you’re planning to build a business, you can also look at competitors. You can look at employee bases if you are setting up a manufacturing plant. There are all kinds of great neighborhood-level data available.

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Where does the individual in a community fall in this conversation?

Santos: Individuals make up communities, and therefore the characteristics of individuals are of high importance, whether it is in the neighborhood, the city or state, or at a higher level. We are becoming an increasingly diverse country, and so individuals need to see themselves in data and communities so that they have a better understanding of who their neighbors are and what their needs are, depending on their characteristics—disabled, unemployed, their income, or their education. We provide data so that you can get that picture so that an individual can not only see themselves, but they can see their neighbors and their communities, and they can do better planning.

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