Somos Neighbors – a grant-funded website created by local nonprofit Community Information Now (CI:Now) – aims to encourage residents to explore other neighborhoods by showing them how they are alike, how they are different, and how wide the life expectancy gap is between them.
San Antonio and Bexar County have had a problem with economic segregation for decades, but technology and data developments have allowed the community to see the stark contrast in health and educational outcomes, income, and life expectancy across the county Where you live is a factor in how long you will live – and the Somos Neighbors tool can show the life expectancy gaps a resident’s neighborhood and its “map twin.”
When an address is entered into the Somos Neighbors tool, users see demographic similarities between their neighborhood and their “match neighborhood,” such as average age, voter turnout, percent of children in households, etc. Then they see the average life expectancy gap – often five years or more – followed by other differences, such as residents with a less than ninth-grade education, average miles traveled per person on a weekday, and prevalence of heart disease among adults.
Website visitors are then encouraged to “close the gap” by learning more about the contributing factors to geographic disparities and taking action, including links to volunteer resources and voting information.
“Death is one of those [data points] you can’t really argue with,” said CI:Now Executive Director Laura McKieran. “We want people to understand the system factors.”
The tool was inspired by a Folded Map Project in Chicago that matches “map twins” from opposite sides of town. One street acts as a dividing line between the more affluent North Side to the struggling South Side. Because the city was built on a grid system, folding the map on that street shows where homes in the north and south sides overlap.
Photographer and artist Tonika Johnson folded the map and started taking photos of the different homes, McKieran said. The project then evolved into Johnson getting the “map twins” to meet and have conversations about the good, the bad, and the ugly things about their respective neighborhoods. Johnson has even developed curricula and data tools for communities to recreate the project in their cities.
“When I saw it I just immediately fell in love in it,” McKieran said. But San Antonio is not designed in a grid system. Its economic segregation, too, does not follow straight lines.
“She came at it from an art direction and we came at it from the data side – but we’re going to land in more or less the same place,” she said.
It’s no surprise to Bexar County residents that the life expectancy in the North Side is, on average, higher than those downtown and in the South, East, and West sides. Historically, public and private development and investment have been higher there than in other parts of town.
“But life expectancy isn’t evenly great across the North Side either,” McKieran said.
That’s why there is a focus on taking action on the website, she said.
The website “has no value if it just sits there,” she said. “Real success is if it gets integrated in [residents’] exploration of the city and they become involved in the issues. … It would be great if people could get out of their usual routine and discover some of the other neighborhoods in San Antonio.”
After a user enters their address into the tool, the “match neighborhood” isn’t revealed until they scroll down through the similarities and differences.
That’s on purpose, she said. “We didn’t want anyone to be able to dismiss their match neighborhood [based on its name].”
The tool, launched in February, was built so other communities can replicate it to apply to their own communities, she said. Additional elements of the website – a methodology document and data dictionary – are to be added this week.
Questions about the data or replicating the tool can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.