Tracking Change on the Corridor: Research insights after year 2 of the Tracker

September 26, 2012

We interviewed Jane E. Tigan of Wilder Research, the principal researcher and author of the Central Corridor Key Outcomes – Indicators report, which provides the basis for the Central Corridor Tracker.

Each year since 2011, the Tracker reports on a set of indicators that align with the four longer-term outcomes the Funders Collaborative seeks to achieve in the Corridor: Access to affordable housing; Strong local economy; Vibrant, transit oriented places; and Effective coordination and collaboration.

Can you give us some insight on how the specific indicators used in the Tracker were chosen?

We started by asking ourselves, well, what do the four broad outcomes look like on the ground? We came up with specific questions that expressed a desired outcome. For example, “Can people of all incomes afford to live on the Corridor?” pertains to affordable housing. Stating it this way led us to look at income distribution, which in turn helped guide the data that we used to help answer the question.

Overall, we worked hard to find indicators that were:

  • reliable
  • consistent,
  • available for small a geographic area, and
  • updated on a relatively timely basis.

As a result, we use a variety of data types and sources, including data from federal and state agencies, the Metropolitan Council, and data from a qualitative survey of key stakeholders.

You drew from data covering different time periods, some of it from before the construction began. How much can we tell from this early data?   

Though we aren’t yet able to say a lot about the context indicators like the change in population and race or income distribution, we are able to say quite a bit about other indicators. For example, the Corridor is a more expensive place to live (considering housing and transportation costs) today than it was in 2000.

Although one of our business indicators is pre-construction, it tells us a lot about the economic picture before construction started—that the Corridor had a net loss of 1 in 5 of its businesses with 5-19 employees. Then look at the indicator we added in year two (business openings and closings along the Corridor frontage). We know that during the first year of construction, 53 businesses chose to open along the Central Corridor and that 48 businesses didn’t make it. Knowing the preconstruction context informs the current findings.

This foundation of understanding will help us as, year after year, we continue to add data.

How would you advise us to interpret these numbers? What’s a reasonable time horizon in looking for changes?  

I think the answer really depends on the end user and the indicator. The Tracker was designed to be a yearly summary update to help guide the Funders Collaborative. Theirs is a big picture approach, compared to an individual who might work on affordable housing supply or business development and retention. For those users, we are counting on the working groups and other organizations to complement the Tracker with their own information and meaningful indicators.

Depending on the indicator, the time horizon can vary. For example, when we talk about construction creating job opportunities, the indicator needs to be more time-sensitive than the indicator related to changes in income. That isn’t to say that rapid change couldn’t occur—were there to be a massive influx of high income households in the Corridor, the data would likely show that.

It is worth saying here, too, that very little change is also notable. “No change” might not make for a captivating headline, but the fact is meaningful in and of itself.

What is your biggest challenge tracking what’s happening in the Corridor?

The Corridor is a very complex geography! It’s made of 13 neighborhoods. It has different micro-economies within it, each of which is impacted uniquely by shifts in the larger economy. There are many cultures, races and income levels living and working within the Corridor, each of which has stories and contexts for why they are or are not changing.

The Tracker was not designed to isolate one of these innumerable variables and say, “This is changing the Corridor”—it was designed to say, “This is the change on the Corridor.” The language difference is slight, but conceptually the difference is important. In describing the change, the Tracker strives to help us better understand the context in which we work and help us understand the Corridor. It serves as a complement to our on-the-ground knowledge.

Were there any surprises in year 2?

There were definitely surprises and things I’m really looking forward to digging into this next year. For example, I’m interested to see how the businesses of all sizes, but particularly those that employ 5-19 people, are doing this next year. The Corridor lost 20% of them from 2009 to 2010—was that a blip? Did they actually go away or simply downsize to a smaller category? 

I’m eager to see how the businesses that immediately front the Corridor are doing, if residential density has increased and whether some of the dramatic changes we saw in the WalkScores were a blip or a trend. And how have stakeholders opinions changed after an additional year of working together? Whew—there’s a lot to keep an eye on!

Are there any things you really wish you could measure, but can’t?

Oh so many! There are so many different aspects of a vibrant place. I would love to be able to measure the number and quality of culturally specific services and offerings, which would include things like grocery stores and restaurants, but also things like dentist offices that cater to or tend to work with specific cultural groups. Getting at that would be a proxy for the health and contribution of the immigrant business community.

What about something that gets at the health of the real estate market, both housing and commercial? Or an arts indicator? How about how welcoming the Corridor is to new people and businesses? The possibilities are endless!

Additional detail and more targeted datasets can be helpful for a specific endeavor, but I think one of the strengths of the Tracker is that it provides a high-level overview of those four big goals so that we can begin to answer: Overall, how are we doing?

What’s your biggest takeaway from this project so far?

Maybe the biggest takeaway is the reinforcement of how complicated the analysis of each indicator can be. A lot of people want to know, “Well, why is it like that?” We can offer some context as to why numbers are changing, but we really leave it up to the user to take the indicators and give additional life to the indicator through their own experience.

Earlier, you gave the big picture answer about the research challenge. What were some of more the nitty-gritty challenges?

Relatively speaking, the Central Corridor is a small geography, especially for the indicators where the sources are federal (like the income and race data). We can’t just go in and find a breakout for the Corridor, so for some of those indicators, we use the data at a census tract level and add up those numbers to give us the numbers for the segments and the Corridor as a whole.

Then for something like income, the Census Bureau doesn’t ask all questions of every resident; they use the responses of a smaller group in order to talk about the characteristics of an entire population. So when we ask the Census to get down to this geography, it has to draw upon a very small sample of people in order to be able to say something like, “In the east segment of the corridor, median household income is lower than in the west segment.”

These are actually estimates that have a margin of error on them, something that every sample-based estimate has. It means that the numbers are a little fuzzy, which means that talking about change over time can be challenging, because lots of the apparent change from year to year is likely within the margin of error. It is because of these considerations that we look at the data on an ongoing basis, so we can tell if the change is showing a real trend.

The economy in the Corridor has received a lot of attention, so we wanted to improve the economic indicators. We’ve made them more geographically refined by using numbers derived from block-level data. That’s good news! The challenge is that a time lag still results from processing the data and taking care that certain size firms in the data don’t skew the results.

Eagle-eye readers of the full report will likely notice that some of our data sources and geographies have changed. Some of these were for reasons beyond our control: for example, the federal agencies (HUD, USPS) that handle the data we used in the first report weren’t certain that they would release it again, so we had to retool.

Previously we were using ZIP code-based data for our business measures, which allow for some industry specificity, but really lack the geographic specificity that we desire the Tracker. Through new collaborations with folks at the Met Council and MN DEED, we had access to a more geographically refined dataset for businesses and residential units. Consistency from report to report is important, so for all changes in data sources, we’ve back-revised the data and analysis used for comparisons.

The Tracker provides some context within the Twin Cities as a whole and also breaks out the East, Middle and West segments of the Corridor. What kinds of things should users of this report look for in the bigger and smaller slices of data?

Users who might not work on the Corridor-wide scale or who are interested in seeing the variation can look at the full outcomes report [Central Corridor Key Outcomes- Indicators (2012)] for the segment breakdown. We also provide a few maps by census tract, which I have found particularly interesting.

Take a look at page 30 of the full outcomes report to look at the median income by census tracts. The data reported by tract allows you to see far more variation in median income along the Corridor than the segment breakdown. I like to look at a single LRT station and see all of the income variation in the tracts surrounding it.

Central Corridor Median Income 

 

“Vibrant places” and “effective communication and coordination” are a bit tougher to measure with hard numbers.

It’s important to remember that data can explain and help understand a lot about a place and help us guide our actions, but it can’t tell us everything. There is a certain indefinable quality about a place, especially when you’re talking about vibrancy. We can develop datasets to track a proxy for it over time, but you can also get out on the street and feel it (or not). People working on the corridor, in any context, really, will benefit from multiple angles and perspectives in order act.

We knew that there was no administrative dataset that could help us understand “effective coordination and collaboration.” For that reason, we chose to use a key stakeholder survey and interview to gauge progress on that goal. This has proven to be a good way to hear very openly and honestly from those folks who are closely involved with the Collaborative’s efforts.

Have you learned anything from this experience as a researcher?

Yes. Sometimes you have to email people a lot to get the data you need.

Seriously, this has reinforced for me just how much community members and stakeholders want to strengthen their story with data and analysis. There is a lot of interest in these topics and the questions that we’ve been asked are so astute. Navigating the many different projects related to the Central Corridor has also been a good learning experience for me.  A lot of people know and are committed to the Central Corridor in a big way!

Do you envision some other ways the Tracker might continue to evolve?

One thing we’re excited about is that the working groups are developing indicators of success for their particular group. These are different than the context-level indicators that we’ve provided so far and they are still in formation, but you can expect to see a section of the Tracker that is devoted to the working groups as they develop their indicators.

Are you aware of other researchers or communities taking this approach to tracking change?

‘Data’ is so hot right now! The idea of tracking change isn’t a new one, but from my perspective it has reached a new level of ubiquity within planning, community development and non-profit circles. The whole concept of community indicators is something that the field is constantly working to improve and make understandable and accessible to people who aren’t data geeks.

If you’re interested in examples from around the nation, there are organizations that bring together folks in many cities and neighborhoods who develop community indicators. Community Indicators Consortium and the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership are a good place to start.