New data sheds light on small communities

December 20, 2010
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Cedar Springs: Percentage of population with a college degree: 8.8

Grandville: Median household income, $52,482

East Grand Rapids: People claiming Lithuanian ancestry: 5.

Those were some of the results the U.S. Census Bureau released last week in the American Community Survey estimates, giving communities with populations under 20,000 their first glimpse at updated social, housing and economic data since 2000.

The statistics are especially important in West Michigan, where ACS updates of socioeconomic characteristics have been available only at the county level and for Grand Rapids, Kentwood and Wyoming, said Gustavo Rotondaro, associate director and geographic information systems manager for the Community Research Institute, part of Grand Valley State University’s Dorothy Johnson Center for Philanthropy.

The east side of the state, with its large population centers, began receiving ACS updates much earlier in the decade, Rotondaro said.

“It’s going to provide us with numbers all the way down to the block group level. That’s a tremendous advance in being able to get data on an annual basis and you don’t have to wait for 10 years,” he said. “You’ll be able to track these numbers every year for geographies a lot smaller than the city, to the neighborhood and community level.”

On Tuesday, the bureau is slated to report national and state population counts from the 2010 Census, as well as apportionment data for allocating the 435 congressional seats among the states. Population breakdowns by geographic areas from Census 2010 are expected to be released starting in February.

American Community Survey data is compiled separately from the decennial census, and focuses on estimating characteristics of the population. It is based on surveys sent to 3 million addresses from 2005-09. It replaces the long census form that was last used in 2000.

This kind of information fuels work done by The Right Place, the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council, the West Michigan Regional Planning Commission as well as CRI.

“We actually pay attention to this data, in fact, to help us in doing the type of planning work that we do, especially on the transportation planning side,” GVMC Executive Director Don Stypula said.

Some of the ACS data — which includes 11.1 billion information items about 670,000 geographic units across the U.S. — will work its way into the GVMC’s long-range transportation plan due in early 2011, he said.

“We will have used some statistics out of the ACS to help us envision ahead…and make some recommendations to our decision makers about their transportation investments,” Stypula said.

The updates could be money, as communities can use the new information for state and federal funding opportunities, he added.

Rotondaro said that grantors are starting to work questions about ACS statistics into grant applications, making the data important for nonprofits.

The West Michigan Regional Planning Commission uses the data for economic development, and land use plans, Director Dave Bee said. The Region 8 commission includes Allegan, Ionia, Kent, Mecosta, Montcalm, Osceola and Ottawa counties.

“This is a big deal,” Bee added. “We have 199 communities within our region and 90 percent or more are under 65,000.”

The Census Bureau updates social and economic estimates for larger geographies each year. But for smaller communities, statistics collected in a single year are considered unreliable. From now on, the Census Bureau will update ACS data annually, based on rolling five-year survey results, for all geographic areas.

CRI provides census information for a variety of geographic levels, such as neighborhoods in Grand Rapids and Muskegon, which requires data at the census tract level. The ACS is providing margins of error for every number the ACS is reporting. Rontondaro said his staff is already discussing how to handle data from small geographic units that have a wide margin error, as the bureau has indicated that a 15 percent error margin means there just isn’t enough data for reliability.

Rotondaro said the CRI is planning to host training sessions for organizations that use information from the ACS.

“We will try to be active and intentional in providing the numbers and helping people understand and read them in a way that is accurate,” Rotondaro said.

“Companies now are looking more and more at data to make their decisions on locating,” said George Bosnjak, business development manager at The Right Place. “We use this information for companies outside the region looking for areas inside West Michigan. A lot of those decisions are data driven.”

For more information, go to www.census.gov and click on American Community Survey.

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