Putting the map on Philadelphia

A bold project looks to "bring public data to the public."

Posted: July 09, 2007

Maps can speak volumes.

That's what the Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project at Temple University is finding.

A multidisciplinary group of professors and graduate students is mapping and graphing job dispersal, incomes, health-care coverage, arts-related business, and about 100 other quality-of-life measures in the Philadelphia region's 353 towns and municipalities.

Temple is tackling the gargantuan project with the help of $2.1 million in two grants awarded in 2003 and 2006 by the William Penn Foundation. The nonprofit focuses its philanthropy on the Philadelphia region.

Magazine-style top-10 lists of the best places to live, or to raise kids, or to own pets, or to party, are not the goal, say project leaders. "It's not up to us to say certain community conditions are the ideal set," said Carolyn Adams, professor in the department of geography and urban studies and codirector of the project with Temple professor David Bartelt.

The goal is to make information available from many sources, and, in so doing, present a data-based picture of current conditions on this mosaic of nine counties, with about five million people, two million jobs, vast wealth and distressing poverty. "It brings public data to the public," said Elizabeth Halen, a Temple graduate who massages the torrent of data.

The project's 19-person advisory group includes Robert Inman, a Wharton economist; Dick Voith of Econsult Corp.; Harriet Newburger of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, formerly of Bryn Mawr College; and Howard Gillette Jr. of Rutgers University's Camden campus.

The project's Web site is loaded with information. For instance:

Did you know that there were 750,000 Medicaid recipients in the region?

Or that the Philadelphia region has 183 arts-related businesses and organizations, such as museums, per 100,000 residents? This puts it about even with Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Phoenix and Pittsburgh. Boston and Minneapolis had denser concentrations: 224 for Boston and 229 for Minneapolis.

Or that 72 communities in the region have a substantial amount of land within a floodplain?

Shawn McCaney, program officer for the William Penn Foundation, said the nonprofit group funded the indicators project as a "measurable way to gauge change and performance. How are we doing with the past and with other regions?"

William Penn had $1.2 billion in assets in 2005 and distributed $60 million in grants, according to the group's Web site. The foundation was founded by the Haas family, part of Rohm & Haas Co., the Philadelphia chemical giant.

An early lesson of the project is that county-level data in the Philadelphia area is "almost useless" because of economic and quality-of-life differences among towns within the counties, Adams said.

She also said the concentric-ring theory of the region - the idea that poverty emanates from the city, with inner-ring suburbs in worse economic shape than outer-ring suburbs - does not always hold. "You have some contiguous suburbs in very good shape," she said.

What does this mean for public policy? "You can't simply strengthen Philadelphia and expect that improvement to spill over into these other troubled towns," Adams said.

About a dozen civic groups are participating with Temple University in the project.

"When you work to change state policy, you have to work on a regional level," said Christie Balka, director of child care and budget policy at Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The 25-year-old group does research and lobbies to improve child care, children's access to health care, and education.

It also has reached out to suburban legislators to show that social problems are broadly distributed and has used the Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project maps to make the points, Balka said.

Students in parts of Delaware County have low test scores. Juvenile arrest rates in Upper Bucks County are surprisingly high, Balka said. "The problems we have classically focused on are no longer confined to the city," she said.

Then there is a practical matter. The project's maps jazz up a report or presentation. And they're free. "It's very costly for nonprofits to find people with access to [mapping] software," she said.

The Temple project is constantly building its database and now is looking at improving its Web site, officials said. The maps are color-coded, but typically lack municipal names. For a time last week, the project's Web site was down altogether.

The indicators project has contracted with a local company, Avencia Inc., of Center City, to develop software to make the Web site and mapping interactive.

David Elesh, Temple sociology professor and project data guru, said, "As soon as new information is available, we get it and clean it. . . . We are constantly looking at data to see if we can produce new images. . . . Maps show you things you wouldn't otherwise learn."


 

For more on Temple's Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project, go to


Contact staff writer Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob.fernandez@phillynews.com.

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