IPA Blog

To improve impact results, start with a community scan

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

By David Rose, Manager Data Demographics & Community Scan, Social Impact Advisors, Northern Trust


A community scan is a multidimensional, descriptive analysis of a neighborhood, town or city, county, region or state. A community scan can identify needs in a community as well as existing resources and institutions, potential partnerships, and gaps in services. Depending on how the community scan is intended to be used, its focus can be as narrow or as broad as needed. A comprehensive community scan should include demographics, social factors, economic data, housing data and anchor institutions.

Sources of information for a community scan have never been as prolific, or as easy to access and use as they are today. While some data may be unavailable for small towns and rural areas, most populated areas will have data available from multiple sources and in different levels of aggregation. Most data are only a Google search away. Below are some sources to use to begin a community scan.

The U.S. Census Bureau maintains the American FactFinder website, which provides access to several federal census and survey products. The site provides several ways to search and download data by geographical level (state, county, city, or census tract) depending on user experience level or need. This site is a good source for population demographics, employment and income, and housing characteristics.

Another site providing much of the same information may be easier for some researchers to use. It is maintained by the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC). The FFIEC Census and Demographic Data site provides a data set designed to be used to examine financial institutions for Community Reinvestment Act compliance and for use with Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data. Disaggregated to the census tract level, the site provides data on race and ethnicity, family and household income, housing stock, and tenancy.

In addition to information about who lives in a community (race, gender, age, family structure), data on what they do for a living, the industries that employ them and changes in wages and prices provide another dimension to a community scan. Data on these aspects of the community (typically at the county level) can be found at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics

Other information that adds to the understanding of social conditions in a community include crime statistics, health, nutrition, education, birth rates and mortality. In some cases, this type of data are available through projects of foundations, not-for-profit organizations, state and local governments, and universities. 

One such example is the National KIDS COUNT Project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Foundation has combined data from national and state sources as well as not-for-profits to provide information on the well-being of children and families. Much of the data can be accessed through the KIDS COUNT Data Center

A collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps website provide an annual snapshot of a community’s health as compared to other counties in the state. The rankings are based on various factors like the availability of healthcare, prevalence of smoking and excessive alcohol use, high school graduation rates, family structure, and crime.

Data on violent crimes can be obtained directly from the Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics website. Data on mortality and cause of deaths at the county level can be found from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention at CDC WONDER. While these sources provide aggregate statistics, local law enforcement may provide detail on the specific violent crime to facilitate creating maps of crime activities or may have maps already prepared. State or county health agencies may also have more detailed or more up to date data available.

In conjunction with other data, the location of anchor institutions in a community may help provide indications of gaps in service and the potential for serious issues. For example, lack of employers in neighborhoods with high unemployment may indicate that transportation is a factor explaining unemployment; or high violent crime incidence near an elementary schools may explain low performance and absenteeism. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics website provides locations and statistics on individual schools. This information can also be obtained from local school districts and state agencies. Data on local employers is less consistently available.  For some counties, a Google search “largest employers in...” may lead to a list on a local economic development website. Lists of not-for-profits in a county, city or ZIP code can be obtained from GuideStar, a not-for-profit that provides research on charitable organizations.

A community scan is more than a bunch of tables and graphs for a community or geography. It should provide insight into the needs and potential issues of a community, help identify the institutions and resources already existing in a community that may be more effectively employed, and identify gaps in services. Preparing a community scan requires organizing and screening data to reveal a communities specific story.

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