There are 387 federally-funded Economic Development Districts (EDDs) across the country. These EDDs, operating with planning funds from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), manage a wide array of multi-county, regional programs related to community and economic development. Occasionally, one of these EDDs will win a large, multi-million-dollar, multi-year grant from a program like HUD Sustainable Communities and then create an impressive data platform that makes integrated regional planning a lot easier. Urban planners can overlay project information, such as proposed transportation improvements or affordable housing developments, over base maps that demonstrate need with demographic data. Economic developers can showcase available properties and incentive offerings on maps that identify workforce availability around any given site. Many EDDs are investing in dashboards that feature compelling visualizations of economic indicators or plan performance measures.
Examples of impressive data platforms are not hard to find in the planning world. The challenge is: What happens when the grant money runs out?
Most EDA-funded Economic Development Districts operate on very lean budgets, especially those located in small metropolitan and rural communities. Licensing even the most basic GIS and/or data platform solutions from private firms is out of the question for the vast majority of EDDs. Further, value-added services at EDDs, or any regional planning organization with voluntary participation from local governments, must be financially sustained through fee-for-service or cost sharing agreements with members. Getting buy-in from members to purchase and maintain these tools (not to mention hire and train the planners to run them) requires a very clearly communicated return on investment. Data platforms, GIS tools, and dashboards must have functional value to planners and other technical users, but be easy enough for non-technical, general public users to access in order to create a wide user base–i.e. increase the chances of constituents complaining to elected officials on your board if their support for maintaining the data platform and/or your staff running it ever shows signs of wavering.
What we’re talking about is the sweet spot for EDDs: delivery of cost-effective, value-added services that (1) expand resource capacity of member governments, which, hopefully, increases the likelihood of successful implementation of CEDS and other types of plans; (2) create a niche market that presents revenue generating opportunities for EDDs to offer more advanced technical services on a fee-for-service basis; (3) empower community members to get more engaged in planning efforts by lowering the barrier to participate through providing free, publicly-available tools; and (4) grow the EDD’s role in the region.
We thought about these goals a lot when I worked at CAPCOG, the EDA-funded Economic Development District in Austin, but that was more than five years ago and technology (or our knowledge of it) had not improved yet to the point of being able to fully explore where data could take us, at least not in a way that was cost-effective enough to develop a sound business plan around it. Proprietary tools were still too expensive; data still too cumbersome.
Fortunately, we got another chance. East Arkansas Planning and Development District (EAPDD) was awarded a $2.6 million HUD Sustainable Communities grant and then turned to us with a challenge: Create a free, publicly available data platform that the agency could maintain itself with existing staff after the grant money was gone. No licenses. No fees. No maintenance agreements. No consultants, unless they chose to use them, not because they had to. We also had to figure out how community members could be trained to use the data to accomplish planning objectives, and track progress on the new HUD-funded regional and local plans under development.
The EAPDD data platform is powered by free Google technology and includes three main components: interactive map and data warehouse for visualizing primary and secondary data; step-by-step tutorials, or “field guides,” that demonstrate how to leverage the data platform to complete planning activities; and a data dashboard featuring performance measures that will be used to evaluate progress on the new regional and local plans.
Interactive Map and Data Warehouse
Here’s an example for economic developers. Suppose you’re working with a prospect company and need to identify a site under a given budget that is zoned commercial with access to ports and rail. The data platform includes a zoning map (where parcel data is available) and you can quickly identify candidate sites based on a company’s infrastructure needs. The data can be viewed on the EAPDD map or downloaded in various file formats, such as Excel or .kml for Google Earth.
No formal training or planning experience is needed to successfully use the field guides, which is one way we are leveling the playing field for small, rural communities. For communities interested in downtown redevelopment, start with learning how to identify an appropriate site and visualize a new development.
Effective planning requires an ability to tell a compelling story–helping civic-minded members of your community understand opportunities and challenges and then motivating them to act. EAPDD will use a data dashboard to tell that story at the regional and county level as communities work to implement the new plans.
Designing and building the EAPDD data platform was a challenging experiment and we’re looking forward to seeing how EAPDD and its member communities leverage the new resource to improve the East Arkansas region.