Map It Out

The most impactive technological breakthroughs usually have less to do with new information and more with new packaging. Innovative ways to compare, contrast, synthesize and combine existing data sets enables those manning the keyboards to do more with less, making more informed and dynamic decisions.Thus, The Reinvestment Fund, a community investment firm based in Philadelphia that aims to revitalize urban neighborhoods, set out to harness the data it uses in a fluid, visual format and ended up with the Web-hosted PolicyMap service at working theory was that accessing data via a map format would drive more effective decisions on both investments and policy planning–determining not only which buildings would make the best targets or which counties need the most help but also which area codes, neighborhoods and blocks would deliver the most community and monetary bang for their buck. “(Decision makers) have been working in a world of spreadsheets,” said PolicyMap director Maggie McCullough, making the case that mapped-out data best represents the reality in cities, neighborhoods and other communities.The fund’s board ponied up the $1.5 million or so for upfront development costs, and The Reinvestment Fund launched the service publicly in May 2008. The company’s mission to provide wealth and opportunity for those who lack them, through socially and environmentally responsible development, motivate The Reinvestment Fund to maximize PolicyMap’s reach by making as much of the service as possible available for free, though some privately owned data sets, such as Nielsen Claritas research, require payment. (Claritas, like CPN, is owned by The Nielsen Co.) Premium subscribers also can send in or upload their own data and work with PolicyMap developers to customize reports and maps to their needs. These users determine how much of their data, if any, they share with public visitors to the site.PolicyMap’s partnership with NAVTEQ, the street-mapping system used in Yahoo! Maps, drives the functionality, familiarity and timeliness of the maps. Still, it’s the data—and the customization options—that is the service’s most valuable quality. Users can cross-reference demographics from the Census Bureau and Claritas, crime data from the FBI and financials from the IRS, as well as information on housing and mortgages, jobs and unemployment, school performance and even health and obesity to each other or with their own proprietary data. PolicyMap even uses vacancy data from U.S. Postal Service mail carriers, who report when mail has not been picked up from an address for 90 days.Users can then overlay selected data sets, such as income and age ranges over school districts that report high SAT scores, using a sliding meter to define what incomes, age ranges and scores they want to see. NAVTEQ’s pushpin feature would then allow an affordable housing developer, for example, to add current or potential development sites.Early adopters of PolicyMap include Comcast Corp. and the Federal Reserve Board of Philadelphia, though any organization that could use help deciding where to put money or buildings or lobbying such decision makers might find the system handy. The New Jersey Housing & Mortgage Finance Agency’s mission, creating quality housing that is affordable to the state’s residents, dovetails with The Reinvestment Fund’s goals. The agency began working with PolicyMap to track deed restrictions, which keep rents on certain properties affordable. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had no central database of such restrictions and their expirations, which became more of a concern as communities near New York City like Jersey City, Hoboken and Newark began to turn around and market rates began to rise above affordability.Thus, the agency used grant money to assimilate HUD data, along with its own. This information, combined with PolicyMap’s existing rent, trend and market performance data, painted “the composition of the fabric of the communities,” said Marge Della Vacchia, executive director of the New JerseyHousing & Mortgage Finance Agency. She and policy research administrator Danielle Esser noted that the maps and reports help the agency track such concerns as whether incomes have risen, rent characteristics, whether market rates will remain affordable and residents’ ages, income and proximity to transit. This information helps them prioritize target areas where they have the best chance at landing government subsidies and where they should lobby for smart growth and infrastructure investment. If PolicyMap data and reports make the pair believe that a market will take off, the agency can become involved early and try to incentivize mixed-income development.