How 3 Cities Are Using an App Designed to Help Them Collaborate

Chicago Fed wants 300 cities to share.

An Anchorage, Alaska, official identified Portland, Maine, as a “peer city.” (Photo by Didier Moïse)

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The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago released an innovative app in February that does some heavy data lifting for city officials across the U.S. The Peer Cities Identification Tool lets users group cities side by side to find out which urban areas share similar struggles in affordable housing and economic growth.

The goal is to get cities talking to each other to share best practices — helping that city in the Midwest with an unemployment dilemma find a demographic West Coast twin that’s starting to spur job growth, for example. Researchers chose 300 cities that had populations of 50,000 in 1960, and compiled census data according to four metrics: equity, resilience, outlook and housing.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago had success with an earlier platform, the Industrial Cities Initiative, which looked at similar issues but only across 10 Midwest cities. Praise for that and hundreds of interviews with city officials inspired the PCIT.

Susan Longworth, a senior economist at the reserve bank’s Community Development and Policy Studies division, says they’ve been getting a mix of love and suggestions from city leaders since this new tool’s debut. “This is version 1.0, and we’re already thinking about what 2.0 looks like,” she says. “We’ve had a fair amount of people interested in data for even smaller cities, so we’re looking into smaller data points.”

Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago researchers have also connected with three cities — one of which wasn’t included in PCIT — to get more feedback about the tool. I followed up with those cities to hear what they’ve learned, and ask whether they think it’s something they’d consider incorporating into any future plans of attack for economic growth.

Rockford, Illinois
Rockford is about 70 miles outside of Chicago, and has a population of 150,000. In 2013 the unemployment rate was over 10 percent. That year, the city formed a coalition of business, community and government organizations called Transform Rockford to build out a road map for a more prosperous, equitable city by 2025.

They’re working with about 300 volunteers to put together and continually update that 2025 strategy. Jake Wilson, Transform Rockford’s program manager, says they’ll be working with PCIT data as they undergo revisions this year. “We’re super excited to start to work with them to start to parse the data,” he says, referring to Rockford’s peer cities. One of those is Kenosha, Wisconsin, a match in the “outlook” section of the survey that looks at demographic growth.

The process taught Wilson and his colleagues to search for examples beyond the familiar. “Just because they’re in the upper Midwest doesn’t mean they’re a peer city,” he says. “There may be some community in Georgia that we never think about. Or maybe some in California.”

“For a community our size, having access to the data the Chicago Fed has — there would have been no way we could have done that by ourselves,” he adds.

Dallas, Texas
Dallas is brandishing some impressive job rates right now, with its total household employment count running higher than any year in the previous decade. But among major U.S. cities Dallas has the highest population percentage of people living 185 percent below the federal poverty line, and the median income of $46,902 is distinctly lower than the eight peer cities that show up alongside it in PCIT’s “resilience” category, which looks at the local economy and the strength of its workforce.

Despite its challenges, the Dallas Office of Economic Development isn’t entirely sure it’ll be adopting this new tool from the Chicago fed.

A spokesperson for the office noted that the “outlook” metric says it highlights demographics and economic potential, yet that theme relies primarily on population data. Longworth notes that, when the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago started interviewing city leaders about the future of their cities, demographics like birth rate and residential length consistently came up. “The outlook theme is not – nor are any of the themes – intended to be predictions or projections,” she says. “It is simply a combination of variables that we know to be relevant to a city’s future.”

Although Dallas didn’t express an interest in incorporating the tool into planning, the city rep did offer some praise, saying it’s “a good attempt of using some type of reasoning in defining what a peer city is.”

Anchorage, Alaska
Anchorage was one city that didn’t meet the Chicago Fed’s guidelines for inclusion in PCIT. But when Christopher Schutte, the city’s director of economic and community development, first heard about it, he picked up the phone.

“As per usual, Alaska was left off the map,” he says, with a quick laugh. But the researchers in Chicago were receptive to his feedback. They agreed to compile a bespoke peer cities report for Anchorage as if it were included in the first place.

“We’re so isolated up there that we are, for all intents and purposes, a standalone community,” he says. He identified Portland, Maine, as a peer city, after attending a HUD conference on the East Coast where a city rep from Portland spoke about affordable housing issues that sounded strikingly similar to the ones Anchorage is navigating in its own locale.

But that’s just one potential match, and one he came across by fate. If the reserve bank expands its data set in any forthcoming version, Anchorage would be an eager participant, especially as Alaska as a whole battles a recession that’s largely isolated from the rest of the country and will likely bring Anchorage’s economic development issues into sharp relief.

“It’s tough to find comparatives to [our] situation, but this is a really intriguing tool, which was using a new set of metrics,” he notes.

Until PCIT 2.0, Longworth and her staff will be keeping an eye out for more feedback. “It seems to be meeting a need of some kind, which is really fantastic to see,” she says. “But if we’re missing the mark in some way, we want to hear about it.”

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Johnny Magdaleno is a journalist, writer and photographer. His writing and photographs have been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera, NPR, Newsweek, VICE News, the Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and others. He was the 2016-2017 equitable cities fellow at Next City. 

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Tags: urban planningbig dataappscity hall

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