GIS Made Easy
HUD hopes its new community planning software will easily and painlessly bring people and government together.
To simplify Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) applications and needs assessments -- and reconnect citizens with government on the local level -- the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) contracted with Caliper Corp. and developed Community 2020, a new community planning software.
Community 2020 was designed to be user-friendly; its unwieldy predecessor had a steep learning curve, too little data and an appetite for space. The program is a combination of Caliper's Maptitude GIS and HUD datasets, and it includes extensive census files, associated demographics and a dataset of all public housing information in the country. HUD Community Connections Division Director Richard Burk said the software is designed for people with no previous GIS experience. "We took Maptitude and built an up-front entry package to make it even more intuitive and easier to use -- it prompts you at every step."
In addition to the HUD Map Library, 2020 has Maptitude's basic analysis and mapping capabilities. Users can prepare needs assessments, do research for grant applications and community development or simply see where and how HUD funds are being spent at local and state levels -- all on one CD. To expedite communication, accessed and submitted data are displayed in a straightforward, standardized format.
Burk explained why Community 2020 is so useful. "HUD gives out about $7.5 billion annually to state and local governments for community development activities," he said. "Government and community action agencies use 2020 as a standardized mechanism for telling us how they are going to spend the money. We embed their data into the software and, through periodic updates, make it available for everybody. This is all part of HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo's efforts to empower local communities through 21st century technology."
With its ability to access community development activities and demographic data, down to the individual address, 2020 is especially helpful in securing project funding. Burk uses the daycare center as an example of the process: An agency secures a list of existing daycare centers in a community and plots their locations in the 2020 Map Library. From the Maptitude census data, they identify households arrayed by income, with children under the age of six. If the majority of centers are nowhere near the concentration of low-income families with children six and under, the agency can determine the number of additional daycare centers required to meet the needs of these families. "If you have a system like 2020," Burk added, "what needs to be done can become apparent very quickly."
HUD recently used 2020 to resolve a social issue in a Baltimore suburb. Residents were complaining that HUD multi-family housing projects in their community were attracting people from low-income parts of the city. The agency plotted the previous addresses of the new tenants, then went into the 2020 database and brought up all low- and moderate-income areas of the city and county. Burk said the data showed that most of the new tenants were not moving from low-income areas; "they were moving from within the same neighborhood, from lousy housing into good housing. We were able to put to rest a lot of concerns about the new arrivals."
In Springfield, Ill., Housing and Homeless (H&H) is one of 42 private, nonprofit member agencies that make up the Illinois Community Action Association. The agency has had 2020 only a few months, but H&H Manager Al Timke sees the program as a valuable resource for Continuum of Care (CC) applications. CC is HUD's comprehensive plan for dealing with homelessness in different geographic areas. (HUD wants all nonprofits to come up with a consolidated plan that represents Continuum of Care, from emergency services all the way to long-term permanent housing.)
Timke believes 2020 will also be useful for all types of grant applications and needs assessments, because it allows users to input their own data and map them out in a straightforward manner.
Richmond, Va., Senior Planner Mike Etienne intends to use 2020 to develop maps that show city council members where HUD funds are being allocated in their respective districts. The information will show council members the project locations, the number of people being served by the project and the amount of money that went into it.
On the West Coast, a public- and private-sector partnership, known as CalWORKS (California's Welfare to Work Program), is already using 2020 to plot the locations of jobs and the addresses of people on welfare in southern California. The data will be used to make a case for modifying or augmenting public transportation, which will help place welfare recipients into jobs that are in different locations from where they live.
Community 2020 has not been out long enough for users to provide an in-depth assessment of its effectiveness, but responses from public- and private-sectors to date are thumbs up for value and ease of use. HUD's next step will be to address 2020's expanding database. The agency is already planning to use the Internet for keeping the program current. Large, nonprofit agencies are already thinking about making 2020 searchable to their clients at agency Web sites. Users will probably see both developments this year.
One of the primary objectives of 2020 is to re-connect citizens with government on the local level. Timke saw this as a real possibility. "Community 2020 is going to make it possible for nonprofits to participate in a meaningful fashion in the Consolidated Planning process. Up to this point, we have been at the mercy of local or state government -- whoever the participating jurisdiction was -- to spoon feed whatever data they wanted to put out. With 2020, we have access to all the relevant data and information ourselves, and we have the tools to analyze it and come to our own conclusions. This is a major step toward democratizing the Consolidated Planning process."
Bill McGarigle is a writer specializing in communication and information technology. E-mail: .
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