For close to a decade, a group of Camden health-care providers has used a database of information culled from the city's three hospitals to evaluate medical costs, identify hot spots in neighborhoods, and develop outreach programs.
Soon, the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers will also be able to look at data from the criminal justice system, housing, and other public networks - information it hopes will lead the way to root causes of recurring problems.
"You may have people who are calling for an ambulance numerous times, having contacts with the police and having contact with various city agencies," said Aaron Truchil, an associate director for the nonprofit coalition. "You can really see a much more comprehensive picture of what's going on as people touch all these systems."
The initiative, similar to information-sharing systems in cities including Philadelphia and New York, launches this week with a partnership between the coalition and the Camden County Police Department, which has pledged to share its data so researchers can study the overlap between public safety and health care.
"This analysis will add tremendous value to our missions of making the city and its people both safer and healthier," Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson said.
The project is funded by the Texas-based Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a nonprofit group that works on social justice, and by the local nonprofit group CamConnect.
Members of the coalition hope to develop a report by year's end that will identify proposed solutions for addressing health and safety needs and areas where money and resources are unwisely spent.
In the last year, plans to quantify and analyze Camden's abandoned buildings and its crime patterns have also emerged. In a city that has long been associated with inefficiency and waste, some nonprofit groups and researchers say data-driven approaches are key to solving problems.
"We're at this point of a tectonic shift in Camden," Truchil said, citing recent changes to the school district, which was taken over by the state, and the police department, which was disbanded and transformed into a county force. "There's this sense of new leadership. We're at this moment where everything is ready to change."
The coalition, which began studying the city's health-care access in 2002 as a group of concerned primary care providers, has built relationships with the health-care community and leaders at every level of state and local government. Its chief executive, Camden physician Jeffrey Brenner, is the medical director of the Urban Health Institute at the Cooper Health System, which is devoted to improving the medical care to underserved populations.
The coalition has made a mission of using data to tell stories about the population it serves, said Dawn Wiest, a senior research manager. To that end, it tapped Dennis Culhane, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Policy and Practice, to serve as a consultant.
Culhane is in the midst of a nine-year project, funded by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, that aims to show how integrated data systems can inform public policy and to help governments improve their systems.
Culhane is also an expert on homelessness who has used a network of administrative records from hospitals and other systems to show that homeless people in New York City cost an average of $40,000 per year in services - far more than it costs to provide them with permanent housing.
The data from Camden's public systems may help advocates better prepare emergency-room workers, paramedics, and other professionals who deal with the city's most challenged residents, he said.
"Bringing all providers under a single sharing system enables us to make better decisions on how to care for them," he said.