In many US states, residents of rural areas feel like second class citizens compared to their metropolitan counterparts. Political activities and results tend to reflect the opinions and activities of city folks, the majority of goods and services are located in cities (even if they are produced in rural areas), and cities generally attract the most tourists from out of state. In other words, the “pulse” of a state is focused on its cities. In Oregon, this pulse is the Portland Metropolitan Area (including Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties) and the I-5 corridor. Stray away from this cake-pop shaped area, however, and you will find hundreds of small towns and communities with wholly different characteristics and needs.
What, exactly, are those characteristics and needs? How do they differ from one another? To answer this question, a social scientist, economist, or even a community member might begin by looking at indicators. The Free Dictionary (www.thefreedictionary.com) defines an indicator as “any of various statistical values that together provide an indication of the condition or direction of the economy”. Indicators, of course, are not just economic — there are population indicators, social indicators, health indicators, education indicators, and environmental indicators — just to name a few. An indicator is basically a number, typically an integer or percentage, that provides a snapshot of an area, population group, or situation. A couple of recession focused indicators making the daily news lately are housing starts and unemployment rates. Indicators are, by definition, actionable. They compile one or more kinds of information into brief summary statistics that are easily understood and acted upon.
Geographic areas have loads of indicators collected by loads of different organizations and presented in loads of different formats. The availability of these indicators on the internet should make quick work of research on Oregon communities (the quantitative kind at least). And it does — if your community happens to be the city of Portland. If your interests or your tasks are rural in nature, there are methodological hurdles that make available indicators less than actionable. For example, most within-state indicators are collected at the county level. This makes sense on a broad scale; county boundaries are a recognized form of delineation and service delegation. On a micro scale, however, a county-level indicator does not always give an accurate picture of a particular community or small town.
In part to address this challenge, Oregon State University and the Ford Foundation have developed a free and highly accessible online tool, the Rural Communities Explorer/Community Reporter Tool, that disaggregates many popular indicators and represents them at the level of small towns or “places” and census tracts. Below are examples of a table and a line graph from the Community Reporter Tool (CRT). The communities selected for the example are Lane County, Eugene (a large city in Lane County), and Oakridge (a small town in Lane County). Statewide indicators are included by default, but can be excluded if desired. The selected indicator is the % of adults with a high school education or greater, but the CRT has over 200 indicators to choose from.
The CRT makes this data actionable in three ways: it collects data and compiles it into a meaningful statistic (the source and formula are shown on the right side of the line graph), it breaks the data down into identifiable geographic areas (city, small town, county, state), and it is shown comparatively across the selected areas and over time. It allows researchers and community members to see information at a level that allows for both accurate story telling and targeted direct action in rural communities.
For research purposes, the CRT is not a final destination. As a collection and dissemination tool, the quality of its information is reflective of the quality of its inputs. Each data source has its own methodological considerations and concerns which are recognized and annotated by the CRT. The CRT is a place, however, to begin exploring data that is particularly actionable in rural communities. As a part of the Rural Studies Program at Oregon State, the Rural Communities Explorer is mission-focused on rural communities and on the inclusion of their needs in a statewide system.
1) States are comprised of urban and rural areas, counties, cities, towns, and places. Indicators are often focused on states, counties, and census tracts. This mismatch makes many indicators less than actionable. It’s important to recognize this when looking for data on rural communities.
2) Use a tool such as the CRT to find data that is a good, actionable, fit for your selected geographic area. To increase the actionability of the results, research the CRT-provided data reference and understand its limitations.
3) The biggest limitation of most indicators is the time it takes to collect them. They are often outdated by the time they are published. Consider how publication lags affect the actionability of your numbers.
4) Remember that indicators are only numbers. Visit communities. Talk to people. Take pictures. There is much more to the story of a community than data and statistics. The breadth of your methods can only increase the actionability of your results.