It’s About Data Baby

Melissa Hege's picture

With vast technology in this information age we are oversaturated with data. The trouble is planners aren't using this information nearly as much as they could be when it comes to economic development in underserved neighborhoods. The transportation sector collects data on travel patterns, behavioral choices, and modal efficiencies. With GIS technology, we can map socio-economic patterns, predict how rising sea levels will change our coastline,and evaluate development patterns. We even have technology to create more efficient trash collection routes and track real time bus movement for bus travelers. But do planners have a sufficient databank of information to demonstrate demand and purchasing power in underserved neighborhoods? Are we perpetuating disinvestment in these communities by ignoring the data? If data begets knowledge and knowledge equals power, where does that leave us?


We all struggle with ways to attract investors into disinvested communities. In Florida, planners almost always turnto Community Redevelopment Agencies or CRAs, which use tax increment financing to provide gap funding for private developments in unproven markets. And why? Because the traditional data sources, like the U. S. Census and Claritis indicate that households in these disinvested neighborhoods have less purchasing power. And if your development is not a typical residential or commercial product, there simply isn't any industry analysis on its potential demand. These two factors limit investment and the types of investments in poorer neighborhoods. But, critical thinkers are challenging these limitations and finding creative ways to link data to develop a better understanding of how disinvested communities spend their money and how cultural and arts activities encourage investment.


The non-profit company Social Compact has evaluated overlooked economic indicators to demonstrate a neighborhood's economic health. They use real time transactional data to track the daily spending habits of communities and to calculate buying power using non-traditional data sources like tax assessment, building permits, utility usage, bill payments, and consumer expenditure. And their findings are quite extraordinary. They've discovered that in over 400 underserved urban neighborhoods there are nearly 1.25 million additional residents and more than $35 billion in unrecognized income-22% higher than census trend projections. This irrefutable data has given disinvested places the power to attract valuable neighborhood investment without having to provide gap funding. The results are more self-sustaining and self-sufficient neighborhoods.


The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), a Philadelphia based foundation which finances urban real estate, business, and provides data analysis, and Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP), a Philadelphia based non-profit policy research group concluded that community based culture and arts can and does encourage private investment, but there is insufficient data to confirm this and no clear method for measurement. SIAP has also revealed that economists are not measuring demand for cultural uses like artist housing, which has a different demand than conventional housing and is more likely to reuse older and underutilized buildings in disinvested neighborhoods.  The SIAP study hypothsizes that developments like artist housing engage the community, help create community identity, and signal market renewal. More data research to measure this link between cultural activity and neighborhood development, like Social Compact's research, could empower neighborhoods to attract cultural investment.


Shouldn't planners and economists cultivate this less conventional approach to data collection in disinvested communities by demanding more thorough research and engaging non-profit organizations that are already developing this information? The benefits are astounding. Until then we are doing our communities a great disservice.



Melissa Hege, AICP, LEED AP, Director of Planning at Redevelopment Management Associates.



Let's not discount "soft" data either

You speak of "data" in the quantitative sense and, yes, planners should be using more of it in their analyses. But the problem may be that planners, as a group, aren't so well-schooled in how to work with data to realize deep and enlightening analysis. I could be wrong about this of course, but as a former public-sector planner that's been my perception.

Be that as it may, quantitative data can provide much insight into current conditions, but without analysis it's difficult to use them to plot a way forward. A new metric shows that decaying neighborhoods may be more "economically healthy" than previously believed. What are we to do with this information? Will investment in artistic and other cultural institutions help the neighborhood change direction? On this, quantitative data is largely silent. And how do we know that residents of these neighborhoods even want these institutions or that those in the wider city will even venture to them?

Hard data is a useful tool for getting a bird's-eye view, but what comes after that? It's my experience that it's the "soft" data -- interviews, charrettes, SWOT analyses -- that are most useful in charting that course.

Making The Most of Primary and Secondary Data

In addition to mining the kind of public data, highlighted by Melissa, to help plan community strategies, the Success Measures Program at NeighborWorks America has helped hundreds of mostly non-profit organizations collect rigorous first-hand data on community conditions, behaviors and perceptions to guide and assess the progress of their strategies and programs to strengthen communities and build assets.

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