Speaking by the numbers

Below the small sixth floor office of Mark Abraham ’04, residents strolled through the weekly farmer’s market on the New Haven Green. It was Wednesday afternoon, and the leaves of the looming oak trees were beginning to color.

Abraham surveyed the scene from his large window. For the past three years, he has spent the majority of his waking hours studying these people — tracking, analyzing and sharing data about their schools and workplaces, their roads and hospitals. He sees the view for its details: the width of the road, the height of the trees and the number of streetlights on a block.

“It’s hard not to see the numbers,” he said.

Abraham is the executive director of DataHaven, a nonprofit organization that publishes reports, synthesizes data and helps other nonprofits apply for grants. In the way of meeting a group’s informational needs, there is little that DataHaven can’t do.

Two weeks ago, the organization released an 86-page report entitled the “Greater New Haven Community Index 2013.” The project brings together census, state and Yale data with original survey data including DataHaven’s 2012 Community Wellbeing Survey, the largest of its kind to be conducted in the region. While the report insists that it is not “comprehensive,” those who have worked with its findings found the word difficult to avoid.

“What DataHaven is doing now is using the index to create and inform community discussions,” said Jim Farnam, leader of the Connecticut Data Collaborative and a mentor of Abraham’s. “The key is linking data to action.”

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If, as Farnam suggests, data analysis turns the wheels of community-based change in New Haven, then for the most part, Mark Abraham is its motor.

In addition to being a kind of one-stop shop, DataHaven is also “a one-man show,” said Georgina Lucas, DataHaven board member and deputy director of the Clinical Scholars Program at the Yale School of Medicine. Abraham is the only permanent employee of DataHaven, and with the exception of one or two periodically rotating assistants, he is responsible for all of its activities.

As these co-workers come and go, Abraham often occupies two of these desks on his own. Eyes calmly scanning his two monitors and the documents spread out before him, Abraham has the demeanor of a Buddhist monk.

“Mark is incredibly perceptive,” said Jim Farnam. “He presents things in a low-key but effective way.”

It’s not surprising that he spends his days in a quiet office analyzing data. It is a utilitarian space adorned only by a neighborhood map of New Haven, leaning against a white wall; his soft voice and calm disposition suit this habitat well. His work impacts New Haven in the same quiet, important way, informing policy and discussion city-wide.

In a city like New Haven, government agencies and civic organizations collect data on various community indicators such as education, health, crime and unemployment — this amounts to countless spreadsheets and reports, often tucked away in databases and filing cabinets.

Leaders, organizations and individuals need this information as they try to understand how best to tackle the challenges the city faces.

That’s where DataHaven — Mark Abraham — comes in. Principally, he gathers all this raw data into one place, puts it in a useful format and distributes it for the community to use.

“We democratize information so neighborhoods can use information specific to them,” he said. “We want to promote community building around data use, so neighborhoods, not just officials, have access to their own data.”

But DataHaven’s reach has not always been so expansive. In 1992, it began as the Regional Data Collaborative, a small upshoot of a national movement to make data available to the public and encourage collaboration among databases. Yale research scientist Cynthia Farrar ’76 founded the group after growing increasingly frustrated with “the lack of good information on key factors across different service sectors and across time.” At the time, she said, it had been “a loose-knit group of organizations and initiatives.” It moved several times — once to Yale’s campus — before settling into Abraham’s current location.

Bob Santy, a managing partner of the Connecticut Data Collaborative, recalled that before DataHaven, there were few data utilities available in the city.

“I think they guessed a lot,” Santy laughed. “Connecticut didn’t have a very robust history of using data to inform policy choices.”

The Regional Data Collaborate grew out of the intention to show correlations between issues in New Haven, specifically tracking the overall health of the city. Historically, the organization has informed public health efforts in New Haven, DataHaven Board President Penny Canny ’79 MPH ’83 GRD ’83 said. Four of the Community Index’s eight co-authors represent public health organizations.

In 2010, before he came to DataHaven Abraham was working for an architecture firm in city. In his spare time, he analyzed census data “for fun,” Canny said.

Growing up around efforts to reduce lead poisoning and air pollution in his hometown of Syracuse, NY, he was exposed to the importance of environmental factors in public health. He studied urban planning as an undergraduate, focusing on data collection. Three years after graduating from Yale, Abraham returned from New York in search for a more accessible community.

Starting out as a research assistant, Abraham quickly grew into his role as executive director. Since his appointment, Abraham has revamped the organization’s website, hired additional support and led community outreach efforts to help residents better understand data.

“There’s not a whole lot of us data nerds who really want to help the community,” Canny said.

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New Haven county schools are the 33rd most segregated schools in the country.

Eighty percent of New Haven’s low-income third graders read at levels below the state’s proficiency goals.

In New Haven, the black infant mortality rate is nearly three times the national average.

These statistics, which were reported in the 2013 Community Index, paint a complex portrait of New Haven development. In his preface to the Index, Abraham writes, “The research in this report […] enables us to see, as a community, things that we might not otherwise see, and do, together, things we could not otherwise do.”

The report seeks to “encourage more cooperation on issues that are usually studied separately, but are closely related in the big picture,” Abraham told the News. Touching on trends in education, socioeconomics, race, health and employment among others, the index features perspectives from local figures such as Mayor John DeStefano, Yale School of Public Health Dean Paul D. Cleary and Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson.

On the other side of its operations, DataHaven’s second major function in the community is to help nonprofit organizations apply for grants by giving them data that illustrates the needs the organization is addressing and the efficacy of various actions and solutions.

“We save organizations the time they would’ve spent looking for data, and give them one-on-one assistance to decide what data to use,” Abraham explained.

When DataHaven came into existence, Santy said, there was no easily available source of data for nonprofit advocacy groups, many of which required the same information to apply for grants. One of the organization’s current clients is Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven (NHS). NHS Community Building Specialist Stephen Cremin-Endes said the group uses DataHaven’s services to supplement their grant applications — both for their subsidized housing development projects and to sustain the organization itself.

“I’m always impressed with his commitment to going to community meetings and spending time with people. Deep down he’s really interested in making sure New Haven is the best that it can be,” Cremin-Endes said, adding that Abraham is always willing to pick up last-minute phone calls.

In 2008, Abraham received an award from the Environmental Justice Network for coordinating the New Haven Safe Streets Coalition, a group he has been involved in since he moved back to the city. Inspired by a leg injury that had made him aware of how challenging it is for people cross wide roads with high curbs, he used data to lobby Yale to work with the city on improving pedestrian safety.

On the Internet, Abraham has become a celebrity of sorts, Farnam pointed out. Tweeting under the handle @urbandata, Abraham’s 140-character quips about urban development issues have garnered him 23,795 followers as of print time.

But for all of DataHaven’s expansion of coverage and regional prominence, it remains just a small entity in the national network of data collaboration, Farnam said, pointing to larger organizations like the Boston Indicators Project. It also remains an individual operation, with Abraham only hiring assistants when a grant or fellowship comes through.

“We need more staffing,” Lucas said. “We need to raise more resources to illustrate our value to more stakeholder groups.”

For now, though, Abraham continues to carry both the organization and its community on his back.

“It’s a good view of the Green,” Abraham said, looking out the window. “You can still recognize people’s faces from here.”

 

Correction: Oct. 14

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that one in three black children in New Haven die in infancy, compared to the national average of one in eight. In fact, about 3.2% of black children die in infancy compared to 1.2% nationally.

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