By the Numbers

January 14, 2004

Heather Heilman
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Information is power, which might explain why those who have it sometimes have a hard time sharing it. Even though public agencies are legally required to publish data, they're not required to do so in an easily accessible form.

numbers"The Census website, for example, is so hard to use that no mere mortal can figure it out on his own," said Denice Warren, information systems designer of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. "It took a team of us to figure out the most efficient way to get data out of that website, and we want to make sure no one ever has to go through that again."

The center, which is the brainchild of Charlotte Cunliffe, research assistant professor of health systems management, repackages information about New Orleans into an easy-to-use website (at

There you can find out how many people in your neighborhood own their home, ride the bus to work or eat fried foods more than twice a week. Statistics on demographics, housing, education, health, poverty and more are presented in user-friendly format. Data comes from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Census, state government agencies, Medicaid, Kids Count, the FBI and a health-asset inventory done by Baptist Community Ministries.

The website is available to everyone, but its targeted audience is people in nonprofit organizations who are writing grant proposals and planning projects. "In the nonprofit sector there's a greater and greater call for accountability," Cunliffe said. "There's less money and you have to do more with it. So there's a push toward using information well."

But sometimes workers at nonprofits are confused about how to find information, how to use it well and how to make meaningful comparisons. So the website offers not only raw numbers, but insight in how to use them.

"This is designed to be a learning system," said Cunliffe. "There are skills we want to transfer along with the data." The website has been up a little more than a year. In that time, the data center has helped many nonprofits, large and small, incorporate compelling data into their grant proposals. And more than 700 people have signed up for the center's monthly newsletter, Numbers Talk.

Cunliffe, who holds four degrees from four different schools at Tulane, has always been interested in the ways tools and knowledge from one discipline can be applied to another. In 1997 she got a small grant from Baptist Community Ministries to figure out a good system for packaging information about New Orleans.

She discovered a study done by the city two decades ago that divided Orleans Parish into 72 neighborhoods, setting boundaries that assured each census tract would only be counted once. Working with that model, she started to think about what could be mapped by neighborhood units. She knew that the kind of demographic information used by marketers and developers could also be useful to nonprofits and community groups.

The question was how to get it out there. She found that the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership of the Urban Institute was asking the same questions, and that partners in a few cities had begun to republish data online for use by nonprofits and community-based organizations. "I thought, we need one of those," Cunliffe said. "We're in the perfect neighborhood city and we don't have one."

The data center is supported by Tulane, Baptist Community Ministries, the United Way and the Greater New Orleans Foundation, but it's an independent entity. "We set it up that way because we want to be perceived as a community asset, owned by nobody and used by everybody," said Cunliffe.

Last year, the data center was invited to be a member of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership. And it recently received a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to expand the content of the website. They'll be adding information about neighborhood assets--things like churches, day-care centers, schools and agencies.

"That should help nonprofits identify gaps in service and foster collaborations," said Warren. They will also be taking a deeper look at racial equity, examining things like homeownership by race. Finally, they'll be looking for the stories behind some of the numbers.

For example, the numbers show that the large majority of people who live in the Lower 9th Ward spend more than 45 minutes commuting to work each way.

"We'll go into the neighborhood and ask residents why things are that way and what they think should be done about it," Warren said. "Then we'll be able to combine our expertise about data with the knowledge of people in the neighborhood."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000