Using Sidewalks to Fight Obesity in San Bernardino County

March 28, 2017 12:29 pm PST | Data as a Service

Known as “The Heart of Southern California,” San Bernardino County covers more than 20,000 square miles, with 2.15 million residents. It’s a car-heavy culture, due to its vast size and high commuter population, with fast food restaurants far more available than farmers markets or grocery stores.

All this adds up to some tough health outcomes for the county: Obesity is high; activity levels are low; and the county is still recovering from having the worst heart disease rate in California. In San Bernardino, the potential is high for parents to outlive their children, according to Trudy Raymundo, Director of the San Bernardino Department of Public Health.

Facing these tough chronic disease statistics, Raymundo made a bold decision. She invited her colleagues, from departments as diverse as the faith advisory council and the sheriff’s department, to help her look at solutions from every possible angle. At Socrata Connect in DC, Raymundo presented on her efforts to improve citizen health in San Bernardino using data from as many sources as possible. She and her co-presenter, Chief of Planning at the San Bernardino County Transit Authority Josh Lee, spoke about their successes with the Community Vital Signs, an open performance website that’s helping the county set and track goals using input from many departments outside of public health.

Using Data to Collaborate, Set Goals, and Stay Accountable

An environment that caters to cars instead of pedestrians is just one of many factors, from education to available food options, that plays a role in residents’ health. Tackling the issue requires more than one person, and more than one department, too.

“The Public Health Department isn’t solely responsible for the county’s health — the entire community has to own it. I can only do so much from a clinical standpoint; if I return people to the same environment that made them sick in the first place, that won’t resolve anything,” says Raymundo.

With the knowledge that San Bernardino needs a multi-sector approach, Raymundo began efforts to improve countywide health by identifying partners, including representatives from the sheriff’s department, the regional transit authority, the faith advisory council, hospitals, school superintendents, and many more. “Everyone plays a role in the community’s health outcomes. If we build a park or put in bikeways and walkways, but citizens don’t feel safe, they won’t be used,” Raymundo points out.

A look at education, one of San Bernardino County’s priority areas, on Community Vital Signs

The task force uses data to see where programs and initiatives can help. “We use data to start a conversation,” says Raymundo, not just stating datapoints, but investigating them to discover the factors determining outcomes. On Community Vital Signs, progress on two major goals — reducing chronic illness and increasing activity levels — is tracked, with relevant data affecting the community and residents’ health on display. “The idea behind the Socrata platform is to keep people engaged,” says Raymundo. “What are we going to work on? What are the strategies that would be relevant? What can they hold us to?”

Displaying the data keeps the task force accountable to residents, says Raymundo. “I wanted to make sure that our goals were always visible and present, so the performance site mirrors the priority areas within our transformation plan.”

Specific Data-Driven Action to Improve Health Outcomes

When speaking at Socrata Connect, Lee, the Chief of Planning for the San Bernardino County Transit Authority, outlined the clear advantages of walking when it comes to promoting health. “It’s common sense: As people drive less, obesity rates decrease because you are using other forms of transportation. As you drive more, the tendency for obesity increases,” says Lee.

But, he understands that you can’t simply command a community to walk more and drive less. Changing habits is hard, for one thing, and for another, there’s a reason so many residents drive instead of walk: the county is built for drivers, not pedestrians. “Our county is going through some real challenges when it comes to the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians,” says Lee, pointing out that the number of injuries and fatalities from collisions are some of the highest in the state.

Here are two data-driven initiatives San Bernardino County has taken on to encourage walking and biking:

Points of Interest Pedestrian Plan (PIPPs) — Using analytical tools, the county targeted 25 locations, one for each of its jurisdictions, and conducted bicycle and pedestrian counts. Next, they implemented changes to encourage even more activity and usage.

Safe Routes to School (SRS) — Lee knew that kids today rarely walk or bike to school in the way previous generations did. Lee started, again, by gathering data: His department picked 55 schools, and surveyed students, parents, teachers, and administrators to pinpoint the issues that prevent kids from walking to school. Based on this data, changes are being implemented — even a simple action, such as promoting a “Walk and Roll to School” day can encourage families to explore alternate ways to get to school.

For these two initiatives — and any programs San Bernardino enacts — data plays a vital role. First, it justifies the program’s existence. “Change is easier when data is available,” says Raymundo. “If a city council member wants to advocate for more built in area, they can pull up the obesity rates for certain zip codes and slice and dice and present the data.”

Data also serves as an analytical tool, as with the transportation department’s review of pedestrian counts. Finally, data helps the county monitor and track performance: What impact did adding a bike path have? Did adding a stop sign at a busy intersection near a school increase the number of students walking to class?

Both Lee and Raymundo point to the need to go beyond simply collecting data. “We have a lot of data. We collect it constantly. What we’re discovering is sometimes the data we collect is not the most relevant data — it’s not what people care about,” says Raymundo.

“With the Community Vital Signs performance site, we bring in important data and make sure it’s accessible. People can see the issues affecting health, along with the solutions the county’s putting in place. Ultimately, our goal is not just for citizens to see progress, but for councilmembers to use the site to drive policy decisions.”

Watch Trudy and Josh at Socrata Connect

Want to hear directly from Trudy and Josh about involving multiple departments and using data to drive healthy change? Listen to their talk from Socrata Connect.


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