Engaging the Power of Demographic Information for Communities

Dan Veroff, Demographic Specialist, Applied Population Laboratory / University of Wisconsin-Extension

 Over the last decade or so, there has been an enormous increase in the availability of data of all kinds.  Where once accessing and using data was in the domain of experts, we can now get data quite easily from websites, apps, infographics, and from other media sources. This has certainly been true for demographic and socioeconomic data and there has been a sea change in how community leaders, planners, and local governments can make use of information about the people and places in Wisconsin.

Many federal, state, and local government entities serve up demographic data via the internet.  Web sites such as the Census Bureau’s American FactFinder (www.factfinder.census.gov) or the Applied Population Laboratory’s own GetFacts site (www.getfacts.wisc.edu) make it convenient and easy to get a wide range of demographic information on Wisconsin communities.


So, what is demographic data?

For starters, demographic data is information on the size, growth, or distribution of the population.  However, demographic data tells us more about communities than their size and whether they are growing or declining.  We can also tap into detailed information on the social, economic, and housing characteristics of communities such as:

  • Basic features – age, gender, race/ethnicity
  • Social features – households/families, education, veteran status
  • Economic features – income, poverty, employment, commuting
  • Housing features – owner/renter status, type, value

The list above just scratches the surface in terms of the rich, socioeconomic information that is available.  Along with the content of the information, one of the great things about data from Census Bureau sources like the 2010 Census or the American Community Survey is the ability to look at the characteristics of small areas like counties, towns, villages, and cities, school districts, or even neighborhoods.   So, that means that we can get the right information at the right scale for doing community work.

Why is demographic information useful?

Demographic data can help provide a basis for understanding communities as they are now, where they’ve been, and where they’re headed.   It can be a powerful tool for tracking change over time and for uncovering the needs or strengths of a community to inform planning, policy development or decision making.  For example, in some Wisconsin communities, data on race, ethnicity and language is being used to help understand the growth of diverse communities and guide the need for translation or interpretation for non-English speakers.  In others, data on local employment and commuting is being used to inform strategies on small business development and job training.   Demographic data can also help shed light on particular characteristics or unique qualities that might help “make the case” for community programs, outreach, marketing, and certainly, for grant writing.  Many, many grant applications call for information about the community or population or audience which might benefit from the activity or work being funded by the grant.   Demographic data can also give us a glimpse at the “before and after” so that we can understand whether a strategy or policy actually made a difference.

The availability of data for areas of any size also means that demographic data can help contextualize people in places of any size (nation to neighborhood) and can provide a framework for community input and participation. In community visioning and planning sessions, it turns out that community residents get really engaged by data that describes the places where they live and are usually much more willing to participate and to contribute local knowledge.

Telling the story of your community

Demographic data goes a long way towards providing a rich portrait of your community – what it looks like, how it compares to others, how it has changed over time.  When local knowledge is engaged to analyze or interpret or enhance demographic information, we can really start to tell the story of our communities.   Our lived experience, observations, connections, and history makes each of us a local expert about our communities.   That expertise can translate a pile of numbers into useful information by helping to contextualize, explain, and make linkages between the data and what is happening in communities.  So, for example, a community resident may be able to shed light on a significant change in a community’s income or employment patterns by knowing that a new factory opened in the last several years.  Or, local service providers may see data that shows an increase in Latino population and understand that it is because many are coming to work at nearby dairies.  In both examples, there are linkages which enrich our understanding of what the data tells us and may help us make decisions, plan, or even seek out more information to complete the story.

Local knowledge can take many forms and come from a variety of sources but here are some suggestions on how to activate and incorporate local knowledge:

  • Tap in to working knowledge of a community or a population to reveal
    • Important social or economic events (like a factory closing)
    • Anecdotal information (like a new housing development seems to be attracting retirees)
  • Talk to service providers (including schools) to get real time information on populations being served
  • Conduct a local survey
  • Present demographic information at listening sessions to get feedback and observations from community residents
  • Ask local leaders and experts

The blending of demographic data and local knowledge leads to powerful information and analysis that can be used for community and economic development, resource allocation, service and infrastructure provision, and preparing for (or responding to) community change.    Given the relatively easy access that to demographic data, it can be an important part of the toolkit for community leaders and organizations.

For more information on how to access or make use of demographic data, please contact Dan Veroff by phone at 608-265-9545 or via email at dlveroff@wisc.edu.  You can also visit the Applied Population Laboratory’s website at www.apl.wisc.edu