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One Key Way to Meet Community Data Needs: Building Up Orange County’s Own Data Portal

One Key Way to Meet Community Data Needs: Build Up Orange County's Own Data Portal

This blog post includes excerpts from the Harbor Institute for Immigrant & Economic Justice’s upcoming report on opportunities to advance immigrant justice.

When the first waves of COVID-19 swept across Orange County, local residents who were already facing health disparities and struggling to make ends meet had their living and working conditions made more severe by a global pandemic. Orange County’s working-class immigrant and refugee communities were hit particularly hard.

Although Latino residents comprised 35 percent of the county’s population at the time, they accounted for 47 percent of COVID-19 cases and 45 percent of COVID-19 deaths in late 2020 [1]. Transmission rates were also higher in cities such as Anaheim and Santa Ana, especially in neighborhoods with high shares of Latino residents who often were employed in occupations without work-from-home options or who lacked regular access to the internet – and therefore could not access regular COVID-19 updates [2]. Since early 2020, community organizations often had to fill these gaps in outreach to ensure residents received critical updates in languages other than English, including Spanish and Vietnamese, and that such information was delivered through trusted messengers and multiple platforms [3]. Such outreach gaps persisted as vaccine rollout began in 2021, with the county’s vaccine registration phone app initially rolling out only in English — despite the $1.2 million contract requesting the app also be made available in Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Korean [4].

A vaccine equity best practices checklist and memo including action items was sent to the County Health Care Agency in February of 2021 by local scholars, community leaders, and residents concerned about inequities in the County’s COVID-19 response [5]. These action steps included more equitable vaccine distribution, in contrast to the then-current distribution model of Super POD (Point of Delivery) locations operating in less accessible, more affluent areas; robust communication and collaboration between the Health Care Agency and community-based organizations; and significant financial investment in culturally and linguistically appropriate community outreach focused on those facing the heaviest burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Health Care Agency did make efforts to implement some aspects of the recommended action steps, equity concerns remained.

In February of 2021, the State of California announced it would prioritize a list of “equity ZIP codes” for vaccine distribution, identified using economic, health, and other data [6]. Four of these ZIP codes are in Orange County. In April, the Orange County Health Care Agency announced that residents in the four equity ZIP codes – 92701 (Santa Ana), 92703 (Santa Ana), 92805 (Anaheim), and 92844 (Garden Grove) – would be eligible to receive vaccines despite not yet having Super POD sites in those ZIP codes. In May, the Orange County Health Care Agency began to wind down its Super POD operations and increase its mobile POD operations. 

The four equity ZIP codes were not the only areas targeted for increased vaccine distribution, but they were among areas consistently noted in County public communications and documents as being priorities for COVID-19 response. For example, in its performance report submitted to the U.S. Department of the Treasury regarding use of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, the County included “four identified equity zip codes, areas with high test COVID-19 positivity rate, areas with low vaccination rates, as well as employer sites requesting access for their employees” as areas prioritized for more equitable distribution and outreach [7]. Large counties and cities that received ARPA funds were required to submit performance reports to the U.S. Department of the Treasury regarding their use of the funds, with particular attention to “provisions that prioritize equity, focus on economically distressed areas, support community empowerment, encourage strong labor practices, and spotlight evidence-based interventions.”

Several pages of its ARPA Recovery Plan Performance Report describe the County’s efforts to “promote equitable outcomes” in pandemic recovery programs. A large portion of the section highlights a data visualization tool called the Orange County Equity Map (OCEM) developed using hundreds of thousands of dollars of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding allocated through a County contract approved in 2020 [8]. Although the Health Care Agency claimed to use the OCEM to “inform its COVID-19 responses, including testing, vaccine allocation and distribution, and other mitigation strategies” by “[identifying] disproportionately impacted communities at the ZIP code level,” it remains unclear from available data whether increased vaccine distribution in equity ZIP codes was a direct result of the OCEM release in July of 2021. Vaccine delivery in equity ZIP codes was already following an upward trend due to previous identification of disproportionately-impacted ZIP codes, increases in mobile POD sides, and closure of Super POD sites. The equity ZIP codes were identified earlier in the year by the Office of the Governor using the Healthy Places Index, which incorporates many of the same indicators used in the OCEM’s Social Progress Index. Additionally, features of the OCEM that have been highlighted as useful to the revised vaccine distribution efforts, such as disaggregation of data by census tract, are far from exclusive to the OCEM [9]. Data analysts trained in R or Python should be more than able to accomplish the same tasks that the OCEM does at a fraction of the cost in staff time. Ultimately, it could have been less costly to the County to hire a team of data analysts to develop an in-house mapping tool.

By July of 2021, efforts to redistribute more vaccine delivery sites to equity ZIP codes in OC had been well underway for several weeks. The year and a half leading up to the OCEM’s launch, during which months of community advocacy helped to resolve inequitable vaccine distribution practices and save lives, demonstrated a continued need for open, accessible data for community members to work with as public health and economic crises unfolded. This need is doubly highlighted by a lack of a clear strong link between the OCEM and improved vaccine distribution. In addition, the OCEM’s reliance on widely-used data sources such as the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, while standard practice among nonprofits, did not necessarily reveal new information about existing inequities that were not already known by many community-based organizations and residents. It did not include the ability to disaggregate various indicators and components by race, ethnicity, or immigration status – which is a crucial function for any large-scale data tool created for a county with a diverse non-white, immigrant population. The map is also housed in an application that does not load easily or quickly on many devices. Ideally, an “equity map” should be accessible and legible to a wide variety of people, not just those who work in the policy space.

The OC Equity Map. Source: https://www.equityinoc.com/map

Orange County should increase and expand routine publication of health, economic, education, social service, law enforcement, and other data across agencies onto the County’s existing Open Data platform. The County’s current Open Data site is only sparsely populated. Some categories of data sources on the County’s Open Data platform do not have any files listed whatsoever. With numerous colleges, universities, tech companies, K-12 schools, community centers, and other venues that foster development of data-related skills, Orange County undoubtedly has a plethora of community members capable of and willing to process data and create visualizations to meet community needs as they arise. Local leaders may be surprised at the innovative tools and visualizations community members and community-based organizations can develop when continuously given access to large quantities of relevant, quality data sources. Building the infrastructure needed to organize, digitize, and continuously collect many different agencies’ records to turn them into data sources for public access may be somewhat intimidating and costly, but the County should be willing to dedicate as many, if not more, resources to this task as it did one mapping tool, the impacts of which remain unclear over two years later. 

This is not to suggest that the County should not fund out-of-house data projects whatsoever – especially ones developed by under-resourced organizations and community members – but rather that approaches to investments in public-facing data projects need not be concentrated in singular large efforts with uncertain returns. A variety of data-focused projects can and should be developed alongside a robust open data portal that can empower Orange County community members to interpret data as issues and crises arise, instead of trying to navigate confusing webs of records requests or waiting for months for better-resourced entities to develop data tools for public use. 

[1] “Orange County COVID-19 Dashboard,” Orange County Health Care Agency. Accessed May 3, 2023. https://ochca.maps.arcgis.com/apps/dashboards/cc4859c8c522496b9f21c451de2fedae

[2] Charlotte Scott, “‘Promotores’ help Latinos in OC with COVID-19 testing, education, and resources,” Spectrum 1 News, Aug 17, 2020. https://spectrumnews1.com/ca/orange-county/inside-the-issues/2020/08/17/-promotores–help-latinos-in-o-c–with-covid-testing–shelter–and-food-access-during-pandemic 

[3] Brandon Pho, “Gaps In Coronavirus Outreach to Non-English Speaking Families & Businesses,” Voice of OC, Mar 19, 2020. https://voiceofoc.org/2020/03/gaps-in-coronavirus-outreach-to-non-english-speaking-families-and-businesses/ 

[4] Spencer Custodio, “OC’s Latino Community Remains Behind on COVID-19 Vaccines One Year Later,” Voice of OC, Dec. 20, 2021. Accessed June 5, 2023. https://voiceofoc.org/2021/12/ocs-latino-community-remains-behind-on-covid-19-vaccines-one-year-later/

[5] Kameko J. Washburn, Alana M.W. LeBron, Abigail S. Reyes, Isabel Becerra, America Bracho, Ellen Ahn, Ana Siria Urzua, Mary Anne Foo, Salvador Zarate, Sora Park Tanjasiri, & Bernadette Boden-Albala, “Orange County, California COVID-19 Vaccine Equity Best Practices Checklist: A Community-Centered Call to Action for Equitable Vaccination Practices,” Health Equity 6 no. 1, 2022.

[6] Office of Governor Gavin Newsom, “Fact Sheet: Ending the Pandemic through Equitable Vaccine Distribution,” March 2, 2021. https://www.gov.ca.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Equitable-Vaccine-Administration-Fact-Sheet.pdf

[7] “Interim Reports and Recovery Plan Performance Reports – 2022,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, 2022. https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/coronavirus/assistance-for-state-local-and-tribal-governments/state-and-local-fiscal-recovery-funds/recovery-plan-performance-reports-2022

[8] Ben Brazil, “Orange County to use new equity map to help resolve community disparities,” Los Angeles Times, August 5, 2021. https://www.latimes.com/socal/daily-pilot/entertainment/story/2021-08-05/orange-county-equity-map-could-lead-to-positive-change-but-action-has-to-be-taken

[9] “How Was the Orange County Equity Map Used to Help Ensure Vaccine Equity During the Pandemic?” Advance OC, June 2021.

Picture of Mai Nguyen Do

Mai Nguyen Do

Mai is the Research and Policy Manager for the Harbor Institute for Immigrant and Economic Justice. They are an educator, writer, qualitative social scientist, and Ph.D. candidate in political science.