Skip to main content

Taking the pulse of the suburbs – an equitable approach to data

‘Data is the new oil’ – it may sound like a dated cliché but it’s nonetheless an accurate comparison in the sense that both materials can be expensive to acquire but, treated and processed in the right way, are extremely valuable.
Belongs to the series:

This is true not only for tech companies but also public-sector actors such as cities. In the right hands, city data will be enriched by insights and understanding about the local circumstances, challenges and possibilities, and can be transformed into actions that target exactly those areas and processes where change is most needed. 

A city-level commitment to ‘put data to work’ is crucial for the City of Helsinki, which currently runs several cross-sectoral projects to promote its residents’ health and well-being and reduce inequity between city districts.

The emphasis on health and welfare promotion is one of the core elements of Helsinki city strategy. Helsinki has long aimed to prevent inequity through means of housing policy and urban planning, as well as through education, culture and leisure, and social and health services. 

The target is to improve the quality of life, well-being and safety of the citizens in their daily environments through building cross-administrative processes in the spirit of ‘health in all policies’.   

None of this would be possible without good-quality data about the residents’ everyday lives. 

Turning the lens towards the districts

A good living environment is essential for an individual’s well-being. One of Helsinki’s key development processes today – and an important part of the city strategy – is suburban regeneration. The purpose of this regeneration is to improve the comfort and appeal of residential areas comprehensively and to facilitate high-quality infill construction. Helsinki strives to be a city where each neighbourhood can offer equally safe and comfortable living in unique, attractive environments. Suburban regeneration is a tool for achieving this goal.

Through its cooperation with the Finnish Institute of Health and Welfare (THL), the City of Helsinki has been able to tap into previously unavailable or underutilized data resources that offer new perspectives to the health and well-being of residents in Helsinki districts. These data sets come from a number of sources outside the City’s own service data systems – including major operators in the grocery trade, sports organisations, internet chat forums, and a credit bureau.   

The work led by the THL experts aims to develop and produce a monitoring model which can be used by Helsinki’s planners and decision-makers for steering the promotion of health and well-being. It also allows a quick response to emerging challenges in Helsinki districts. The results of the work are used to produce a variety of forecasts, situational pictures and indicators needed in the management of health and welfare promotion. The data enables experts to produce age-group and sub-area specific analyses and is therefore a useful instrument for studying inequity in Helsinki.

This kind of new information is important for the local government to create targeted policy solutions. For instance, the City of Helsinki Division of Culture and Leisure benefits immensely from information about sports club memberships and indicators concerning children and youth’s physical fitness. With this and other similar data, well-being inequities can be better addressed and interventions can be targeted more accurately. 

New tool for monitoring inequity

The data collected in the THL–Helsinki cooperation project has been published for internal use by city officials. Due to data protection concerns it is not freely available on public internet. A dashboard including all this data has been designed using the Microsoft Power BI software, but THL and the City of Helsinki have also produced a simpler digital tool for monitoring inequity. 

This new tool allows users to compare an existing socioeconomic status index with a new index produced from the THL-provided data for Helsinki’s postal code areas. The tool shows linearly that areas with a higher socioeconomic status also tend to score better on the new data index. But a closer look reveals that there are exceptions as well. Some areas stand out negatively from the rest in terms of their socioeconomic status but, according to various indicators produced from the new data, are in fact more in line with some areas scoring much better on the socioeconomic index. It is a well-known maxim that various negative issues tend to accumulate in the same districts. However, the new tool shows this is not always the case.

Replicating a unique data set such as this may not be an available option in most cities. However, combining new cross-administrative ideas on how to analyze the data each city has may open up new views for examining health and well-being equity.

Tommi Sulander, senior expert, City of Helsinki, Executive Office, Urban Research and Statistics

The text is based on remarks given in the Partnership for Healthy Cities summit organised by Bloomberg Philanthropies in Cape Town on 7 March 2024.