A nonprofit organization that revitalizes communities by investing in affordable housing, schools and businesses is making the vast store of data it has amassed to guide its decisions available to the public through an online data mapping tool, PolicyMap.
PolicyMap is an outgrowth of the work of The Reinvestment Fund, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that has considerable expertise in gathering and analyzing data, including statistics on home sales, lending practices and demographics.
In the past, The Reinvestment Fund has collaborated with government agencies and nonprofits that make grants, as well as lenders and government planners, to help them channel investment where it’s needed most.
Now, real estate developers, brokers and agents, and prospective home buyers can tap into the wealth of information the fund’s gathered on home sales and values, neighborhood conditions, income, employment, schools and a mind-boggling array of other statistics, often right down to the Census tract level.
"Our mission is to create wealth and opportunity in places where it doesn’t exist," said PolicyMap Director Maggie McCullough. Getting information about those places into the hands of decision makers "is a strong mission hit for us. We want to be able to spread this information, and to make it more available to people."
Map a flood of information
Want to know where subprime lending or piggyback loans were most prevalent during the housing boom? PolicyMap can show you, turning arcane statistics gathered by federal banking regulators into easily understood maps and reports.
Would you rather live in a neighborhood where residents are contributing to Republican presidential candidate John McCain or his Democratic Party rival, Barack Obama? PolicyMap will map those statistics from the Federal Election Commission at your request.
Think you’d like to live in a neighborhood where a large proportion of residents not only plan for the future by contributing to individual retirement accounts, but demonstrate their civic-mindedness by donating to charities? PolicyMap has access to that information from the Internal Revenue Service. With the click of a mouse, it can map it at the ZIP code, city, county, state or national level.
The site boasts similar capabilities for mapping bankruptcy filings, poverty, food stamp use, income, crime rates, education, race and age. PolicyMap can tease out trends in mortgage lending, apartment rents, household vacancies, employment and industry concentrations.
PolicyMap’s data set is so deep, and the options it provides for building queries are so versatile, that a blog and online orientation sessions are offered to help new users learn how to get the most out of the site and pose questions on issues that are stumping them. There’s also a site demo, but it’s intended more for marketing than educational purposes, McCullough said.
The Reinvestment Fund has more than two decades of experience gathering and crunching numbers. To make that information accessible to the public, it turned to Los Angeles-based Placebase Inc. and its hosted online mapping platform, Pushpin.
Although Pushpin is user-friendly, it doesn’t hurt to have someone who knows PolicyMap inside out show you around. McCullough provided Inman News with a demonstration of the site’s capabilities, noting its ability to pinpoint multifamily public housing projects funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and others, for example.
There’s also a "user gen" aspect to the site, in which users who upload their own data sets to PolicyMap can choose to make them publicly available. The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits — a not-for-profit arm of The United Methodist Church that claims to be the largest denominational investor in affordable housing programs for low- and moderate-income families in the nation — is one user that’s made information about its properties available on PolicyMap.
"It serves a public purpose to them to let the public see where they make their investments," McCullough said.
Although about 80 percent of the data The Reinvestment Fund has collected is available free to registered PolicyMap users, there is a subscription fee to access information that the fund must itself pay to access.
Registered users get free access to more than 4,000 indicators related to housing, mortgage originations, demographics, crime, education, income, jobs, energy and taxes.
Paid subscribers — prices start at $200 a month for a standard subscription — get access to "exclusive" data sets that include current-year demographic estimates and five-year projections, plus block-level home-sale statistics. Paid subscribers can also generate custom reports and maps that they can print out or e-mail, and have more options for querying the PolicyMap database.
Still to come
PolicyMap currently shows the locations and enrollment of schools, but subscribers will soon also have access to test-score information for every school and school district in the nation, McCullough said. Also in the works: possible partnerships with real estate listing sites or companies that track foreclosures.
Because information on property sales and values currently comes from county recorders via First American, it tends to be about six months old. One advantage of that approach is that the data aren’t estimates — they are actual sales, which paid subscribers can analyze right down to the neighborhood level.
It’s possible to tease out neighborhoods where home prices increased the most between 2001 and 2006, for example, and find out which neighborhoods continued to experience price increases during the first three quarters of 2007.
But McCullough said listing sites like Trulia have an edge in that they can do calculations "on the fly" to generate statistics and heat maps that illustrate current market conditions.
That’s why McCullough is talking about partnering not only with listing sites, but companies that gather information on foreclosures.
"Whenever I demo the site, people ask if we have any foreclosure data," McCullough said. "I’m not so interested in (pinpointing the location of individual foreclosed properties) or trying to attract people who want to buy foreclosures, but I am interested in what neighborhoods are most impacted by foreclosure."
Also in the works are a widget that would allow anyone to embed PolicyMap’s mapping tools into their own Web site, and set defaults tailored to their own geographic area and data layers. McCullough would also like smaller users to be able to upload small data sets of a couple dozen points to PolicyMap on their own.
While most of the site’s growth has been through word of mouth and search-engine optimization, PolicyMap has been doing demos at trade shows and has hired a public relations firm, Braithwaite Communications, to help publicize the site.
Since a December "soft launch" and a public launch in May, PolicyMap’s user base has grown to 3,500 registered users, and about 100 premium subscribers, McCullough said.
"A lot of real estate brokers and agents have registered for free," McCullough said, although she was not aware that any had signed up for paid subscriptions. "To get quick info about a neighborhood and print out some maps, it’s pretty useful" to real estate agents, McCullough said.
A few limitations
While the site’s versatile, it does have limitations in some areas. FBI crime statistics — including assault, burglary, car thefts, murder, rape and robbery — are only available at the county level, which makes it impossible to compare neighborhoods or even cities.
Comparisons between counties can be difficult because of limits on how data is broken down. With the largest data range for murders "10 or more" a year, virtually the entire San Francisco Bay area is shrouded in a deep shade of purple. (The site has no statistics for San Francisco County, but says that across the bay, there were 172 murders in Alameda County in 2006).
The same problem comes up with other categories, including motor vehicle thefts. The largest data range is "162 or more" in a county per year. That doesn’t begin to describe the magnitude of the problem in Alameda County, where 19,261 cars were stolen in 2006. Although paid subscribers can edit the data ranges for other data layers, that’s not an option for crime stats.
It also remains to be seen how the public will use the information that The Reinvestment Fund has gathered for the greater good.
If the fund’s goal has been to help steer investment into communities that need it most, what’s to stop house hunters from doing the opposite — shunning communities with poor schools and high crime rates? Might some home buyers use the site to avoid neighborhoods that are near public housing projects, or that are racially diverse — potentially depressing home prices in those areas?
McCullough said PolicyMap is designed to serve up information — not tell people how to use it.
"We’ve been really careful about just displaying the facts as they are, without any opinion," she said. "We are not saying subprime lending is bad or good, for example, just ‘Here is where it is.’ We’ve been conscious to do that with each and every data set."
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