Are Your Asset Data as Good as You Think? Conducting a Comprehensive Census of Built Assets to Improve Urban Population Health


Secondary data sources are widely used to measure the built asset environment, although their validity for this purpose is not well-established. Using community-engaged research methodology, this study conducted a census of public-facing, built assets via direct observation and then tested the performance of these data against widely used secondary datasets. After engaging community organizations, a community education campaign was implemented. Using web-enabled cell phones and a web-based application prepopulated with the secondary data, census workers verified, modified, and/or added assets using street-level observation, supplementing data with web searches and telephone calls. Data were uploaded to Using direct observation as the criterion standard, the sensitivity of secondary datasets was calculated. Of 5,773 assets on the prepopulated list, direct observation of public-facing assets verified 1,612 as operating; another 653 operating assets were newly identified. Sensitivity of the commercial list for nonresidential, operating assets was 61 %. Using the asset census as the criterion standard, secondary datasets were incomplete and inaccurate. Comprehensive, accurate built asset data are needed to advance urban health research, inform policy, and improve individuals’ access to assets.

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We would like to acknowledge the invaluable input from our community partners who guided and co-led us in the development and implementation of the asset census methodology. We would also like to acknowledge the efforts of literacy expert Shane Desautels, software engineer Evgeny Selkov, graphic designer Jola Glotzer, and GIS specialist Todd Schuble as well as Scott Allard and Jennifer Mosley for their significant input on the use of secondary datasets and data collection methodologies. We would also like to acknowledge the efforts of the South Side Health and Vitality Studies staff who provided ongoing support to this project and without which none of this would have occurred. This project was supported by the South Side Health and Vitality Studies (P.I. Stacy Lindau, MD, MAPP). The South Side Health and Vitality Studies are supported by funding from the University of Chicago Medical Center Division of the Biological Sciences; the Office of the Urban Health Initiative; the Walter G. Zoller Memorial Fund at the University of Chicago; the Chicago Community Trust; the George Kaiser Family Foundation; the Otho S. A. Sprague Memorial Institute; Patricia O. Cox, and the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health (K23AG032870 and 1RC4AG039176-01). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute on Aging or the National Institutes of Health.

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Correspondence to Jennifer A. Makelarski.

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Makelarski, J.A., Lindau, S.T., Fabbre, V.D. et al. Are Your Asset Data as Good as You Think? Conducting a Comprehensive Census of Built Assets to Improve Urban Population Health. J Urban Health 90, 586–601 (2013).

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  • Urban health
  • Built environment
  • Asset mapping
  • Asset census
  • Community-engaged research methodology
  • Population health