Data without context can be dangerous

Our updated City of Cleveland Ward fact sheets provides local leaders, elected officials, and community members with additional tools to inform their decision making. While this is very exciting, we feel it is also important to take a moment to reflect on what this information is, and most importantly what it is not, and to reflect on the importance of context. Data shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum.

Data shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum.

Limitations of data without context

Population data certainly has the feel of objectivity, free of bias, but we must resist the urge to examine them separate from the actual people with which they are associated. Exploring numbers in a vacuum can be enticing because statistics seem to provide tidy answers to understanding our complicated world. But we must acknowledge the context for this information and attempt to avoid the pitfalls of oversimplification (or worse). The new Cleveland Ward fact sheets are no different, and should not be interpreted without understanding context. As we dug into the data to try to draw meaningful conclusions, we encountered a perfect example of the pitfalls. There is a moderate negative correlation between the percentage of white people in a ward, and the level of people experiencing poverty in a ward: the greater the percentage of white people, the lower the percentage of poverty. With zero context, this association could be used as dangerous and incorrect “evidence” of white people as a group doing something of their own merit to avoid poverty. Of course, context tells us that things like economic disenfranchisement, red lining[1], and systemic racism have led to the disparities seen today between white and Black residents.

Ignoring context can lead to ineffective or cruel policy

This reflection is especially important given a long and troubling history of using data with little context to advance ineffective, and at times cruel policy. In just one example of this, Harvard professor and author Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad draws our attention to how crime data have been used for over 100 years to “evidence” the criminality of Black Americans. Dr. Muhammad writes, “The hunt for crime data to prove black inferiority started in the 1890s, when demographer Frederick L. Hoffman began looking. Black people had only recently become citizens and therefore subject to criminal prosecution in courts of law. Hoffman mined census reports and the local arrest statistics of half a dozen cities from Chicago to Charleston. He showed that ‘the criminality of the negro exceeds that of any other race of any numerical importance in this country,’ and insisted that the causes had nothing to do with structural inequality. The real problem [according to Hoffman] was a lack of personal responsibility.”[2] This sentiment persists to this day, as does the criminalization of Black Americans through data with no context.

However, we know that the critical context to these crime statistics would include but not be limited to: the history of the Thirteenth Amendment incentivizing the criminalization of Black Americans to continue to steal labor[3]; harsher sentencing practices against Black people[4]; and a history of racist laws and policies from Jim Crow, the War on Drugs, to stop and frisk. All of this context in part explains why Black Americans have worse outcomes when it comes to the criminal justice system, wholly unrelated to a “lack of personal responsibility.” However, the use of data with no context has become such a rallying cry in some circles, that the Anti-Defamation League has identified a series of numbers supposedly related to crime data as racist propaganda[5]. But not all oversimplifications of data will be as obvious as racist propaganda.

Applying context to new Cleveland Ward Fact Sheets

Anyone who has spent time in any of Cleveland’s seventeen wards (as my colleague Kate Warren reflected on recently) knows that the richness and depth of a ward cannot be distilled into a two-page factsheet. These factsheets instead provide the best available estimates with the data that is available (primarily sourced from the United States Census’ American Communities Survey), specific to a point in time.

These fact sheets can be helpful in identifying needs, potential areas of concern, and getting a broad sense of what a ward looks like and is experiencing.

These fact sheets can be helpful in identifying needs, potential areas of concern, and getting a broad sense of what a ward looks like and is experiencing. What these fact sheets are unable to do however, is fully convey the deep and complex day-to-day life with in the Wards. They do not necessarily highlight the amazing work being done on the ground by local community leaders, social service providers, and businesses to positively impact the lives of the Ward’s residents. And they do not speak for those residents who call these Wards home. This is why, in any kind of deeper assessment The Center for Community Solutions engages in, we prioritize hearing directly from the people we work with via interview or focus group, as a necessary augmentation to quantitative data we put forth. So I reiterate, we are proud to release our updated Ward factsheets for the City of Cleveland! Especially when they are used as a tool for decision making that can positively impact the people of Cleveland’s seventeen wards. But information without context isn’t meaningful, and at times is dangerous. Let these fact sheets spark new ideas, start new conversations, and be just one tool in your toolbox for change.


[2] Muhammad, K. G. (2019). The condemnation of Blackness: Race, crime, and the making of modern urban America, with a new preface. Harvard University Press.