When Census Data Isn’t Enough

How a professional consulting and design firm was able to go beyond traditional Census data and gather demographic information for a custom project area.

Every ten years, the planning and regional development agencies in the Twin Cities metropolitan region are faced with an exciting challenge: Each of the region’s 180-plus municipalities must update their comprehensive plans.

For WSB & Associates, a firm specializing in engineering, planning, environmental and construction services, this oncoming planning season brings with it the opportunity to work with a variety of communities across the metropolitan area: Many of WSB’s clients are municipal governments, meaning that as the ten-year cycle for comprehensive plan updates approaches, the firm must be able to respond to the needs of very different municipalities. It also requires the firm’s planners to quickly and efficiently access, analyze, and share valuable data for multiple communities.

Karina Heim, planner at WSB, works in the community planning and economic development sub-department of WSB.

“Whether you’re an inner-ring community, a built-out community, or an exurban community, you need to do a comprehensive plan right about now,” Heim said. “That has been one of my main focuses: to figure out what this comprehensive plan process means and how it differs for different communities with different needs.”

Heim and her team view access to data as a vital component to understanding and working with a variety of communities.

“Data should lead every act that planners do,” Heim said. “It’s critical that we have good data and that we can present it in a way that is comprehensible to different audiences.”

The comprehensive planning process for WSB’s clients requires quite a bit of quantitative data; With the help of mySidewalk, Heim was able to quickly and efficiently gather data to fuel WSB’s comprehensive planning efforts for their various clients.

The tool was particularly useful as Heim set out to gather the demographic data necessary to complete a city park grant proposal for one of her clients.

“The most helpful moment was when I was working on a grant proposal for a park in an inner-ring suburb of Minneapolis,” Heim said. “They were applying for a couple of different grants to help fund their master planning effort, and both grants were very much focused on how the park was reaching communities of ethnic and racial diversity, reaching underrepresented demographics, the elderly, and the very young.”

With mySidewalk, Heim was able to quickly access the necessary demographic data for the area she needed, even though the proposal required data from a geographic area not typically represented in census information.

“There were a lot of very specific demographic questions in the grant, and it was for a non-traditional geographic area, such as ‘within a three or five mile radius of the park,’” Heim said. “I was able to import a shapefile of the radius around the park and get that very specific sort of demographic [map] by pulling data from within that radius.”

You can see that the map displays a 5-mile radius around Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park. (Source: mySidewalk.)

Heim said the process of gathering that data from mySidewalk took less than an afternoon — but without the tool, the same process would have taken much longer.

“I would be spending more time on the census website, and it would be complicated by the fact that the geographic area was sort of a non-traditional one, certainly not one that the census has summary statistics for,” Heim said. “I’d be pulling the data by census tract and then filtering out the different census tracts I needed, or something more laborious. I could be using GIS, but if I were to do the whole thing in GIS, it would be a lot more clipping and cutting the data down, and this was much quicker.”

Collecting client data via mySidewalk will ultimately guide WSB’s planning process moving forward, Heim said, and she is looking forward to the upcoming wave of comprehensive planning efforts: “I’m excited to actually go through that process of gathering that information, analyzing it, and seeing how it informs these plans.”

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mySidewalk is a city intelligence tool that helps analysts track, analyze, and communicate progress on department and citywide goals. Our mission is to empower city leaders and the public with the most complete, clear, and real-time understanding of community data so they can improve and innovate together. You work hard for your data. What’s it doing for you?

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About WSB & Associates

WSB & Associates is a professional consulting and design firm providing engineeringplanningenvironmental, and construction services to clients in the governmentenergy, and commercial markets. WSB is currently a customer of mySidewalk, a data tool for people who want to understand places.


About the Author

Jill Applegate recently graduated with degrees in Spanish and Political Science from Kansas State University. Jill is currently working in the Dominican Republic on the DREAM Project, an initiative that provides more than 670,000 hours of education to more than 7,0000 children in 27 different communities.