How systems thinking is guiding El Tímpano’s reporting on health & overcrowded housing
From icebergs to feedback loops, El Tímpano intern Sonya Lustig details how we’re working to understand this largely invisible crisis
By Sonya Lustig
Three months ago, El Tímpano began investigating the prevalence of overcrowded housing in Oakland’s Latino and Mayan immigrant communities and how those housing conditions affect the health of residents, throughout and beyond the current COVID-19 pandemic.
We knew from the start that this project demanded an unconventional approach to reporting. The crisis of overcrowded housing — particularly as it affects undocumented immigrants and intersects with public health — touches upon a web of public policies, economic structures, and social idealogies that cannot be neatly separated from one another. If we wanted to examine how overcrowding impacts public health, and what we can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to take a wide lens.
El Tímpano teamed up with Journalism + Design to incorporate tools from a practice called systems thinking as a way to identify the interconnected systems at play in overcrowded housing and surface opportunities to address structural inequities embedded in this largely invisible crisis. While we are still a ways from completing our reporting, we want to pull back the curtain on the process that the Journalism + Design team has led us through to take a systems-oriented approach to this issue, and how it’s informing El Tímpano’s journalism.
1. Surface insights and information needs from key stakeholders
To start, we wanted to ground our reporting in the insights and information needs of those who experience or work on these issues. By seeking out their insights and learning more about the intersecting issues that contribute to overcrowded housing and poor health outcomes, we can design our reporting to be valuable to multiple stakeholders, build on local expertise, uncover areas in need of investigation, and identify opportunities for change.
We began our work in November by creating a “stakeholder map” — an exercise in identifying the different groups of people who are connected to or impacted by overcrowded housing conditions in Oakland in order to surface the perspectives and information needs of those closest to the issues we are exploring. We generated a wide list of stakeholders that included those living in overcrowded households, as well as landlords, public officials in health and housing sectors, community organizers, legal aid professionals, and journalists.
After mapping these stakeholders, we identified specific people we could interview from each of our stakeholder groups. This initial set of interviews was geared to deepen our team’s understanding of the key drivers and effects of overcrowded housing in Oakland, solicit questions that our reporting could help answer, and seek out relevant resources and information that El Tímpano could provide as part of our reporting.
In addition to these interviews, we drew insights from El Tímpano’s SMS community. More than 1,600 people, primarily Latinx and Mayan immigrants in East Oakland, subscribe to our SMS platform. Many had previously shared their experiences living in overcrowded conditions, so we knew that, in addition to individual interviews, we could surface the insights of dozens of people directly impacted by the issue through our participatory reporting platform.
We asked our community how they thought their housing conditions affected their health, and what they might change about their living situation to improve it. As we sent those call-outs, we also provided information about local tenant protections and financial assistance.
We received dozens of replies that shed light on both the physical and mental health impacts of overcrowding. “I live with three couples and four kids,” one person shared over text (translated from the original Spanish). “One woman got sick and we lived with the fear of getting sick as well. It’s very hard for us, and even harder for our son.”
Other responses provided insight into the forces driving overcrowded housing “I live in an overcrowded house with several families due to high rent prices,” one person wrote.
Our conversations with county health officials and legal aid organizations uncovered resources and information that addressed many of the questions we heard from those living in overcrowded conditions, as well as a desire for better data and more stories to understand the experiences of affected residents. Several people told us that simply shining a spotlight on overcrowded housing and its impact on health will bring needed attention to a crisis many people don’t realize exists.
“There is this kind of, you know, out of sight, out of mind dynamic happening here,” said a housing policy advocate. “Many people think, ‘Yeah, I may be paying a lot for my apartment, but I’m not sharing it with five or six other people. And so I don’t really feel like it’s a huge, huge issue.’”
An analyst from the county’s public health department said she would like our reporting to provide her with a better sense of how the policies implemented to stave off displacement during the pandemic are working. “That’s something I wonder about a lot, like, how effective is our [eviction] moratorium if people don’t know about it, or are afraid to push back?”
At the same time, members of El Tímpano’s SMS community were sharing stories of being threatened with evictions, and questions about where they could find legal assistance and rental relief. Clearly, there is an important role our reporting can play in connecting the stories and information of these various stakeholders.
2. Visualize the system’s structure
Early in our process, we also turned to a group of reporters and editors from a variety of local media organizations to both inform our reporting and share our systems-oriented process to help deepen coverage of the housing crisis at a regional level.
We convened reporters and editors from KQED, El Tecolote, The Oaklandside, Reveal, The Mercury News, and Bay City News, using a systems thinking tool called the “iceberg model” to collaboratively map the structures, policies, and ideas fueling Oakland’s overcrowded housing crisis. Participants broke into small groups and brainstormed examples for each layer of the iceberg, pictured below.
In the iceberg model, an event is what occurs above the surface and brings attention, even if fleeting, to the issue. In this case, for example, reports of a COVID outbreak at a Fruitvale supermarket in May of 2020 brought attention to disparate COVID rates in Oakland’s Latino communities.
Trends and patterns occur just beneath the surface, such as the rising cost of rent prices in Oakland, and stagnant wages at the bottom end of the job market.
The group we convened came up with dozens of examples that illustrated the “system’s structure,” such as immigration policy creating fear and mistrust among immigrants, limitations on rent control, language barriers, and the political influence of property owners. At the bottom of the iceberg model are “mental models” — the values, assumptions, beliefs and ideas that shape the way we see the world, and how systems are designed. Among those that our group identified were the idea that housing is a commodity and not a human right (an idea that KQED’s podcast Sold Out explored last year), the feeling some may feel that “that’s just the way it is,” or that immigrants don’t deserve the benefits of government help. These mental models can be challenging to surface, but can help illuminate some of the core paradigms and belief systems that our journalism can inform, challenge and shift.
If you want to use the iceberg model to visualize the systems at play in an issue you’re reporting on, check out this resource in Journalism + Design’s systems thinking toolkit.
3. Create a systems map of the relationships between overcrowded housing and health
Our conversations with stakeholders, as well as our call-outs to El Tímpano’s SMS community and the ongoing reporting of El Tímpano’s reporting fellow Héctor Alejandro Arzate, helped us identify numerous forces and factors at play in overcrowded housing and health, which we began organizing using the digital whiteboarding tool, Miro.
As a group, we discussed elements involved in the system — a family’s ability to afford rent, ability to isolate if someone got sick, immigration status, availability of paid sick leave, etc. — and added them as “sticky notes” on the Miro board. By identifying the factors at play, we sought to make connections between them.
From there, we began to create what systems thinkers call “feedback loops” — visual representations of self-perpetuating patterns, in this case, those related to overcrowding and poor health outcomes among Oakland’s Latino and Mayan immigrant communities. Through this process, we were better able to understand how different factors, such as access to rent relief, can have a domino effect, either improving tenants’ ability to live in healthy conditions, or driving further overcrowding.
Here’s an example of one of the feedback loops we created showing how both access to resources and a family’s ability to isolate during the pandemic can impact overcrowded conditions.
Now, we’re moving on to the next phase, from systems mapping to reporting. We’re in the process of drafting a visual map that details the patterns fueling overcrowded housing in Oakland and its impact on residents’ health. We’ll then share our draft systems map with stakeholders and local reporters to get additional feedback.
The process of understanding and visualizing how the system currently functions will subsequently inform where change is possible. We’ll use this map as a guide for our reporting, exploring possible interventions that could disrupt some of the harmful cycles at play.
Sonya Lustig was a health and housing intern working with El Tímpano and Journalism+Design on this systems lens reporting project. Sonya is currently a third-year student at the New School who aspires to use journalism as a tool to improve public health in Oakland, where she’s from. Additional contributions by Cole Goins and Madeleine Bair. The team contributing to this process also includes Journalism + Design’s Kayla Christopherson, El Tímpano’s reporting fellow Héctor Alejandro Arzate, and intern Emiliano Villa. El Tímpano’s systems lens coverage of overcrowded housing and health is possible thanks to the support of Renaissance Journalism.