My project

The Life Expectancy by Census Tract project created a web application that allows users to explore life expectancy data at a level of granularity that was previously impossible: down to the census tract or neighborhood level, by inputting individual addresses. The project is significant because the data reveal that people living just a few blocks apart may have vastly different opportunities to live a long life in part because of conditions in their neighborhood. The project’s goal was to call attention to the significant gaps in life expectancy that persist across many United States cities, towns, ZIP codes and neighborhoods — sometimes up to a 20-year difference in life expectancy between neighborhoods just a few miles apart. The audiences for the project were health policy makers, community leaders and the general public, which it reached by creating a simple embeddable and shareable resource.

What makes this project innovative?

This was a first-of-its kind data journalism opportunity to work in concert with researchers on an entirely new and unique dataset with our online interactive as the primary dissemination mechanism. This data feature explores how life expectancy in America compares with life expectancy by individual area. Users can find life expectancy data down to the census tract level for the first time, as well as state and county estimates, by simply entering their address into the tool. The interactive allows users to find life expectancy for nearly all 73,000 Census tracts in the United States. The neighborhood-level data used were completely new for this project, made possible by a unique joint effort — The United States Small-Area Life Expectancy Estimates Project (USALEEP) — made up of the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems (NAPHSIS), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention\'s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). Previously available data could only provide information at the county-, city-, and ZIP code-level, which often didn’t tell the full story. Neighborhoods right next to each other can experience drastically different opportunities for health and well-being. Census tract-level data, on the other hand, offer information on a much smaller group of people (about 4,000 per tract on average) making it possible to show a more complete picture of health at a local level.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

This was a first-of-its kind data journalism opportunity to work in concert with researchers on an entirely new and unique dataset with our online interactive as the primary dissemination mechanism. This data feature explores how life expectancy in America compares with life expectancy by individual area. Users can find life expectancy data down to the census tract level for the first time, as well as state and county estimates, by simply entering their address into the tool. The interactive allows users to find life expectancy for nearly all 73,000 Census tracts in the United States. The neighborhood-level data used were completely new for this project, made possible by a unique joint effort — The United States Small-Area Life Expectancy Estimates Project (USALEEP) — made up of the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems (NAPHSIS), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention\'s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). Previously available data could only provide information at the county-, city-, and ZIP code-level, which often didn’t tell the full story. Neighborhoods right next to each other can experience drastically different opportunities for health and well-being. Census tract-level data, on the other hand, offer information on a much smaller group of people (about 4,000 per tract on average) making it possible to show a more complete picture of health at a local level.

Source and methodology

Our project was the main vehicle for dissemination of these data. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supported the collection and analysis of the data at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and as part of that arrangement were to publish the results in the interactive on rwjf.org since the information available from the CDC - https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/usaleep/usaleep.html - would be focused on a researcher audience, providing data tables. Although the data were embargoed and we would not see or have access to them until publicly available, we worked with the researchers early on to understand the data shape, create our own sample data to build and test the interactive, and prepare for when we received the full dataset. When the data were released, we ran scripts to ingest and validate it, make adjustments to our application to account for unexpected situations like missing values, and quickly overwrite the sample data in order to launch within one hour of the data release.

Technologies Used

The project uses the React JavaScript library for search functionality and rendering results. The application utilized the live U.S. Census Bureau API to match individual addresses to their Census tract code. That code was then cross-referenced with the new tract-level life expectancy measures. Additional data at the county, state, and national level were included to provide context, and also as a fallback in cases where an address could not be matched to a specific Census tract. The tool was built to work with as little as a zip code. Considerable work was put into error handling to account for missing data, and also for downtime or slow response from the Census API, which was not under our control.

Project members

Jeff Stanger John Ragozzine Ben Myers Kevin Fodness Elizabeth Wenk, Burness Jessica Mark, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Michelle Procaccini, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Ari Kramer, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Christine Namur, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

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