Work in Progress

Tampa, Fla., gives citizens easy access to neighborhood statistics on the Web.

by / February 4, 2004
Through its Web portal, Tampa, Fla., has been providing users with information about city neighborhoods for a year. Now the city is overhauling the site to better mold it to user needs.

The Neighborhood Information Page, part of the TampaGov portal, allows users to access statistical information about neighborhoods, such as land use percentages, population, ethnic diversity, resident income, housing type, resident education level and which council districts are in the neighborhood, by selecting the neighborhood on the map.

The site was developed by the Urban Planning Division of the city's Strategic Planning and Technology Department. The concept emerged from the five-year Florida Sustainable Communities Demonstration Project, which intended to test a new approach to community planning, in which Tampa was a participant.

As part of that project, the city began testing GIS software called INDEX, which allowed them to generate indicators, or statistics that can be used for comparison.

"The software was a little too bulky for us to use in terms of its requirements of data detail," said Urban Planning Manager Randy Goers. "But we were still interested in the concept of being able to display information geographically and have indicators."

The division was also interested in making the data available on the Internet, so citizens could easily access it. Goers said constituents would call with questions about their neighborhood or general area.

"We would end up having to go and respond to just one request, and generate a report or send back an e-mail, or generate a map and send it out," he said. "We use most of our Web page now in responding to requests for information. People call our department and ask for information or a report, and we guide them to a particular spot on the Web page."

Michelle Dugliss uses the site to research real estate developments for the architectural firm where she works, but she said she has found other uses as well. "Since my husband opened a business in Tampa, I compare community demographic information for marketing uses," she said. "If you've never been to Tampa, the neighborhoods are very blurred going through the streets. One might miss the economic make-up of the resident based solely on facades." Dugliss said she also used the site to research neighborhoods where she might buy a home.

Goers said nearly all data his division produces is now available on the Web. The site also allows users to view more in-depth indicators, select indicators by type, compare neighborhood indicators, or view the neighborhood rankings by indicator. The citywide average for that indicator and an "EKG," which shows in a glance how the neighborhood measures up to the citywide average, are displayed along with the neighborhood indicators.

Good Data, Bad Data
An ongoing challenge Tampa's team has encountered in this project was finding reliable sources of information, Goers said, because the division must pay close attention to the quality of data it uses, or the page could produce indicators and comparisons that don't make sense or aren't realistic.

"If it turns out it's because the data is bad," he said, "then we're misleading people and putting them at risk to make bad decisions."

Statistical data, collected from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Florida Department of Transportation, Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission and various departments within the city government, are stored in Excel spreadsheets or a Microsoft Access database, Goers said. Some information must be entered manually, but some data, such as data from the Census Bureau is automatically downloaded, he said, and Microsoft FrontPage displays the information on the site.

The EKG and charts are automatically created by Microsoft Excel, he said. The city uses MapInfo products and several other programs for graphics and display to create maps and for geographic analysis. He said the abundance of applications was a challenge in creating the site.

"Just to have people that can think across all those different lines of technology creates a little bit of a challenge," he said.

A "Neighborhood Resources" link guides users to other reports that provide information about neighborhoods in Tampa. The site also provides several ways to request new indicators or give general feedback. Goers said the last year has been a testing phase for the page.

"Before we put a lot more work into it, we wanted to make sure there was some acceptance out there," he said.

Testing the Waters
"Our view was if nobody was going to the page or if we got too much criticism that it wasn't valuable, we'd just take it off," he said, adding that the site receives an average of 1,400 hits per month.

Goers said the last year's experience has influenced plans for the overhaul.

"It turns out some of the people who are the most active are retired [and] have the most time, but they don't necessarily have the fastest computer, so we needed to find out whether we were making something too difficult to download and see and use, or if it was something that was user-friendly, so that's pretty much what the purpose of the last year was."

Frank Reddick, president of the Northview Hills Civic Association, said his organization uses the site to gather and disseminate information about community services and resources, and other neighborhoods that is useful to his neighborhood's residents -- many of whom are senior citizens.

"The Neighborhood Information Page is very valuable to residents of my community due to the fact that many are senior citizens and unable to gather information from other sources," he said.

Based on what the Urban Planning Division learned in the last year, Goers said, the city hopes to make the information more intelligible, and design the new and improved site to help users understand the indicators.

"The page just compares general statistics," he said. "Users like it, but they haven't been able to figure out how to use it or apply it to what they want to do. Right now, we just put [the indicators] up there and say, 'You're either above or below the average.' I think we ought to give the user a little bit more information on what those specific indicators meant to their neighborhood. We want to move toward measuring the delivery of service."

He said neighborhood organizations could use the comparison to help improve their neighborhoods. For example, he said park space is a frequent request. "When you relate it citywide, maybe it will show everyone is pretty well served, or maybe the areas asking for more park space actually have more than the average," he said. "We're trying to get it down to actual services, so they can see how their tax dollars are being spent."

The city hopes interactivity will make the site more user-friendly. Goers said Tampa will offer more maps and a mapping tool allowing users to view statistical information layered on a city map.

When creating the Neighborhood Information Page, he said, the city had to choose between providing reports, which was simpler, and providing a more in-depth tool for analysis, because the city wanted to have a page it could build on as it needed.

"We decided to do the latter and try to get something a little bit more interactive," he said, "something we know we can continually build upon in the future and try to automate as we go along."
Emily Montandon Staff Writer/Copy Editor