By understanding the communities' demographics, we are better able to strategize our public engagement and assess community needs. This is important as we look to see who are underrepresented groups in park/trail visitation—communities of color, seniors, [and people who have disabilities or a] low income.
Providing Census Data to Help Move Minnesota Forward
The last year has shone a light on the need for collecting and analyzing human resource-related data such as pandemic statistics, racial disparities, education inconsistencies, and economic inequality. There is a need for easily accessible, real-time data that community leaders and policy makers can use to make decisions, create change, and adjust their policies. A unique, publicly accessible tool fills this need in Minnesota. Created about 13 years ago, the Minnesota Compass project has become the go-to demographic data source for Minnesota communities.
Minnesota Compass was created "when leaders from across Minnesota voiced a desire to have credible, easy-to-access data about their communities," according to the project's website (mncompass.org). Minnesota Compass provides a common foundation of information to effectively address community issues and measure progress in resolving them. The project's goal is to build strong communities by understanding trends, shaping policies for greatest reach and impact, and maintaining an informed public.
Data is collected through the US Census Bureau, American Community Survey, and other workforce data sources. The data is then integrated into the application using geographic information system (GIS) technology to give public users easily accessible information that can be geographically sorted and compared. This allows government agencies, policy makers, and nonprofits to identify, understand, and act on issues impacting communities and quality of life.
North Point Geographic Services (NPGS) recently had the opportunity to work on the Minnesota Compass project, made possible by generous funding from a consortium of foundations across Minnesota. NPGS was contracted to update the application programming interface (API) and application data and enhance the GIS capabilities. Us Creative Works did all of the front-end website development.
While these changes required extensive coding updates, the site and data can now be updated more efficiently. These changes also improved functionality. Users can select and sort data-based standard geographies (such as counties, cities, school districts, and ZIP codes), nonstandard geographies (specific focus areas in Minnesota), and custom geographies. The custom geographies functionality is an interactive feature NPGS helped update during this project. Using complex apportionment and weighted centroid methodology, users can select several counties or ZIP codes at once, or create a custom geographic area. The site then gives a breakdown of the data for a selected area, in 12 different categories such as age, sex, race, and income. The programming also makes sure to keep individuals' privacy protected by suppressing sensitive information where applicable.
According to the Minnesota Compass website, organizations such as the United Way and Second Harvest Heartland use the data to identify the most vulnerable communities to make sure they are being served in the most effective way possible. Park and trail planners in Washington County in the Twin Cities metro area are another group that leverages the data. The group uses the Build Your Own Profile tool to analyze the communities surrounding the county's parks. "By understanding the communities' demographics, we are better able to strategize our public engagement and assess community needs. This is important as we look to see who are underrepresented groups in park/trail visitation—communities of color, seniors, [and people who have disabilities or a] low income," said Connor Schaefer, a planner for the parks system.
As we continue through the COVID-19 pandemic, the data collected and displayed on the Minnesota Compass website is a powerful tool for helping neighborhoods and vulnerable populations recover. Justin Hollis, a research scientist at Minnesota Compass, said he was able to create an ArcGIS StoryMaps story "to show which neighborhoods and communities in Minneapolis and Saint Paul have populations with relatively high levels of multiple health risk factors." In addition to risk levels, staff are continuing to add data around vaccinations and quality-of-life measures. This allows policy makers and nonprofits to monitor key indicators that may change as the pandemic lessens, and make decisions to help improve the quality of life for those who need assistance the most.
Minnesota Compass has also started a Champions reciprocity program to better serve and engage with the community. Organizations can apply to promote the Build Your Own Profile tool in their region and community. In turn, Minnesota Compass provides them with additional data support.
The list of organizations utilizing Minnesota Compass's data is continually growing. Free access to the site gives small government agencies and nonprofits that can't afford a data analyst the ability to access data and make key decisions that impact their communities. NPGS was honored to partner with the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation on this project and thanks the many donors that made it possible: McKnight Foundation, Blandin Foundation, Morgan Family Foundation, Northland Foundation, City of Duluth, Ordean Foundation, and Head of the Lakes United Way.