Integrating data for community action

What is it?

CommunityViewer is an integrated data system created to help San Antonio-area service providers and policymakers understand local needs and respond to those needs in an intelligent and efficient way. The application is intended to allow the integration at the person level of data from multiple collaborating education, housing, justice, case management, and other health and human service organizations and systems in San Antonio, Texas and the surrounding area.

CommunityViewer “stitches together” private agency datasets like those of schools and human service organizations and public datasets like the Census, vital statistics, and hospital discharge data. It geocodes person- and household-level records so that those can understood in the context of place and neighborhood conditions. It enables trending over time and longitudinal tracking, for, say, the graduation rates of children who attended pre-K versus those who did not. Among other collaborations, CommunityViewer is in use by PaCT (Promise and Choice Together) partner organizations.

How do I use it?

CommunityViewer’s Public Reports allow anyone with an internet connection and browser to query and download unduplicated aggregate data – never data about individual people – at no cost. The two datasets currently available through Public Reports are births and hospital discharges for the entire state of Texas. Over time these datasets will be updated and others added, including the EDI kinder-readiness index, education indicators, indicators of child well-being, and assisted housing information.

CommunityViewer’s Private Reports, Person View, and Household View are locked down on secure servers and cannot be accessed by the general public. A few specific staff of the partner organizations using CommunityViewer are given the lowest level of access possible for them to perform their job duties. Some can see only grouped data in Private Reports, never information about identifiable people in Person View or Household View.

Who owns CommunityViewer and this data?

CommunityViewer is owned by the United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County and managed per UWSA agreement by Community Information Now (CI:Now). The data in the system remain the property of the organization that originally collected it and shared it with CommunityViewer. Data-sharing is governed by two kinds of agreements:

  • formal written data-sharing agreements between UWSA and the organizations sharing data with CommunityViewer; and
  • formal written consent of the person the data is about, his/her parent, guardian, or legal proxy. People control who can see what of their own CommunityViewer data and can change these choices at any time.

What about privacy and security?

UWSA and CI:Now are really, really uptight about data privacy and security. Data-sharing is scary for everyone involved, and for good reason – every bit of data in the world has a real person behind it, and we all should get to control where that information goes and how it’s used. Yet more and more often, it seems, we hear stories in the news about privacy breaches and companies using our data in ways we don’t like.

We all sign privacy forms at the doctor and other service providers, and we click on terms of agreement pretty much every time we’re on the internet. UWSA and CI:Now believe, though, operating according to the spirit of privacy and security rules and laws is much more important than just getting a consent form or other agreement signed. Transparency and integrity are much better safeguards in this work than are pieces of paper.

If you want to learn more about the laws and principles by which we operate CommunityViewer, check out our CommunityViewer User Agreement, which has to be understood and agreed to before a partner organization’s staff member can access the private data in CommunityViewer. At the end of that User Agreement you’ll find links to a required user training resources – several short videos and documents that summarize FERPA, HIPAA, and the Texas Medical Privacy Act (HB300).

If you are a parent or student who’d like to know more about FERPA, the federal law that protects student information, the U.S. Department of Education’s Privacy Technical Assistance Center has a great overview in this video that intentionally starts out with ridiculously fast “legal disclaimer” talking. This video from the Data Quality Campaign describes who uses student data, how, and why.

If you’d like to know more about the federal law that protects our health information (HIPAA), this video is a good overview from the patient perspective.

The CommunityViewer consent form in English and Spanish is currently tailored to use in the EastPoint neighborhood in support of the PaCT (Promise and Choice Together) work. It explains what CommunityViewer is and does, and gives people initial choices about who can access their data, although those choices can be changed at any time.