3Qs on the New England City Data tool

January 2014

Ana Patricia Muñoz, Deputy Director in the Regional and Community Outreach Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, answers three questions about the New England City Data Tool.

1. It's been a few months since the City Data tool has been released. Tell us about how people have been using City Data. What feedback have you received so far?

Photo of Ana Patricia Muņoz

Ana Patricia Muñoz, Deputy Director in the Regional and Community Outreach Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston

It's been really rewarding to see how both the data enthusiasts and the data shy have embraced the City Data tool. We've heard from non-profit organizations, think tanks, philanthropic foundations, financial institutions, among others – exactly the kinds of organizations we hoped would benefit. Some are using City Data to get a sense of how their cities and towns are faring. Others use it to paint a picture of some of the challenges in lower-income communities across New England, and to track how these communities have changed over time.

We heard from one Connecticut-based think tank that used it during the federal government shutdown in October 2013 when the Census website was unavailable. A member of the Massachusetts legislature also told us that she would be sharing the tool with her colleagues in the House of Representatives; she said she was impressed with how the data is visualized. And here at the Bank, colleagues have been bringing City Data to meetings to illustrate disparities in incomes or demographic shifts in communities across New England. It's really great to see such a wide range of users.

2. Tell us a bit about the origins of the tool and the data it uses to provide insights. Isn't it the census data, just provided in visual form?

The City Data tool is much more than the census data. For one thing, it is the only application out there that provides data broken down by lower-income and higher-income neighborhoods. It also provides a one-page snapshot of basic indicators such as household income or population growth from 2000 and 2009 and allows for city-to-city comparisons within each New England state.

One of the more compelling features is its ability to produce results in three different formats: as a raw excel file for the number-crunchers, as one-page city summaries in PDF form, and as an infographic that allows the user to compare a range of cities and towns. It would take someone a significant amount of time to get this data directly from the census website – let alone to then format and display it in an impactful way – so we're glad that the tool is helping to simplify the process.

3. What are some interesting insights you've gained by using the tool yourself? Anything you didn't know before that surprised you?

One of the goals we had was to bring attention to the disparities between the region's lower-and middle-income (LMI) and middle- and upper-income (MUI) areas. But it isn't until you visualize those differences that you realize the profound challenges that lower-income communities face. For example, college educational attainment is, on average, twice as high in middle-and upper-income (MUI) (39 percent) than in low- and moderate-income (LMI) neighborhoods (20 percent) in New England.

Screenshot from the City Data tool showing college educational attainment in New England.

The City Data tool profiles a range of indicators including college educational attainment
in New England.

It was also interesting to see that in some cities and towns, most if not all of the neighborhoods are LMI.  For example, Lawrence, MA has only LMI census tracts. In Hartford, CT, 96 percent of residents live in LMI neighborhoods. Even Somerville, MA, a city which has been experiencing a resurgence for the better part of 10 years, 43 percent of residents still live in LMI neighborhoods.

The City Data tool helps analyze policy issues, too. For example, it shows us that housing costs seem to be a burden across the board in both LMI and MUI areas. In Providence, RI for instance, an average of 57 percent of renters living in LMI and 52 percent of renters in MUI communities spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. Just in this one example, the City Data tool's ability to uncover potential policy concerns is apparent.

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