Thursday, May 31, 2012

Which States are Most Susceptible to EU Recession?

By Matt Tarleton, Project Manager.

Germany’s surprising 0.5 percent annualized growth in the first quarter of 2012 has allowed the European Union to technically avoid a recession. However, nearly every other EU country has slipped into an official recession, defined as two consecutive quarters of negative output growth. The likelihood that the EU avoids recession depends heavily on a number of risk factors, including but limited to the region’s debt woes, the ongoing crisis in Greece and the potential for a Greek exit from the EU, and the degree to which other European economies (such as France, Italy, Portugal, and the UK) continue to underwhelm.

So for those of us on the other side of the Atlantic, what does this mean for our economic recovery? One of the primary ways in which a European recession will affect the U.S. recovery is through American exports. As manufacturing activity and consumer spending are depressed in the EU, demand for American-made consumer products and intermediate goods used in manufacturing processes will fall, resulting in a decline in exports, and therefore output, in the United States. Similar effects could be seen in professional services exported to EU businesses.

In order to determine which states’ economic recoveries are most susceptible to an impending recession (or at worst, continued stagnation) in the EU, I examined exports to the European Union as a share of each state’s total output (gross state product). The following map illustrates the findings based on 2011 trade and output data. Those states in red possess the largest relative share of output derived from exports to the EU, and therefore more susceptible to weakened producer and consumer demand in the EU. Those states in blue are least susceptible, while exports to the EU as a share of GSP are roughly equivalent to the national average (within a few tenths of a percent) in those states that are white.

By this basic measure, the Utah, South Carolina, and West Virginia economies are most vulnerable to EU recessionary pressures, with the percentage of GSP derived from EU exports all more than double the national average. The majority of the states in the Great Plains are among the least susceptible, with tremendous variation in the South and the Northeast. A more detailed analysis would examine the hardest hit sectors in the European Union and tie these trends to the sectors most reliant on EU exports in each state. Perhaps something to look for in an upcoming blog…

Thursday, May 24, 2012

There Will Be Graphs; Part 1 of a Series

By Evan D. Robertson, Project Associate.

I’m about six feet tall. I have blue eyes. My hair: blonde. While these descriptions likely read as a personal ad, these data also share one very important thing in common. They all describe attributes particular to myself. Attribute data defines characteristics that belong to objects or, in this case, people. It is the type of data with which we are most familiar and serves as the cornerstone of our modern statistical society. Most surveys, interviews, and other data gathering techniques are essentially collecting attribute data in one form or another. For instance, the United States Census Bureau is engaged in the vital task of collecting and disseminating individual attribute data aggregated to some specified level of geography. Household income, educational attainment, age, and race/ethnicity are useful types of attribute data we see with regularity. In a growing world in which we have begun to realize the value of social networks, however, it is important to identify another class of data which, while used extensively in social science research over the last fifty years, has not reached such predominance in society’s consciousness.

Relational data defines the connections, ties, and attachments which relate one individual (or object, as you’ll see in my forthcoming post) to another. Without at least two agents, relational data doesn’t exist. Relational data hasn’t gained as widespread recognition for a variety of reasons but the most central: it is highly qualitative and difficult to gather. I have blue eyes; this is fairly easily observed and classified. But, how does one describe my connection with my friends? My coworkers? Close? How close? Do we measure our closeness by the number of emails exchanged? Phone call length? How much time we spend in the break room? There is, for now, a qualitative component of relational data that social scientists are still working to codify and develop a unified language to describe our social relations. Describing these relationships, however, is becoming an imperative in our increasingly networked world.

Social network analysis (SNA) is a tool that analyzes relational data. Social network analysis attempts to investigate the connections between individuals in a larger social web through the use of graphing techniques. SNA can be used in a variety of settings, depending, of course, on the needs of the user. For instance, if you are engaged in economic development marketing, then SNA would be a fairly useful tool to study your Twitter or other social media campaigns to identify gaps or groups which you feel that your organization isn’t as well connected to as it should be. In terms of analyzing an organization, SNA can help to identify potential barriers to information flow or general communication shenanigans within the economic development organization. And for those data geeks, so near and dear to my heart, social network analysis gives an outlet to visualize connections between various objects (yep, it doesn’t have to be people, simply objects that have interrelation…tune in on June 12th).

I’ll be the first to admit that there are a few short comings of social network analysis as an analytic tool. First off, depending on the size of the social network, I am not entirely convinced that social network analysis will show you something that you don’t already intuitively know. You can probably take a guess at which organizations your social media campaign isn’t penetrating. The data is also difficult to gather. While you can obtain information on your followers via and (see my colleagues past blog on these tools for more detail), it is more difficult to obtain the broader social structure you are attempting to influence. Matching your Twitter follower information to your broader social network, say the entire business community in your county, and understanding the quality of these connections is prohibitive from a time and cost perspective. The power of social network analysis is that it creates visually appealing, intuitive graphs. It is one thing to instinctively know the workings of your social network. It is another thing entirely too actually be able to see it as well as manipulate it (not used in the Orwellian sense of the word). Social network analysis gives the ability to organize data, to think about the connections between things, and to reorganize the system given new thoughts about their interrelations. It is an expedient tool to step away from our social world and gain a bird’s eye perspective.

So, I’m at 735 words which I've been informed is approaching the socially acceptable limit for blog length. On my next post, I’ll use social network analysis to order and reorder national occupational employment data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and see if we cannot glean any useful information. My next few blog posts are intended to be experimental, so if something doesn't exactly work out: you have my humble apologies. As promised, there will be graphs.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Killing the American Community Survey

By Ellen Cutter, Director of Research.

When the House voted to defund the Census American Community Survey (ACS) on May 9th it became the most astonishing, short-sighted political maneuver anyone has seen for a long time. Most everyone seems to feel this way from the full Cato to Brookings spectrum of think tanks to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Initially, Republican House leadership wanted to repeal the survey’s mandatory requirement claiming that it is unconstitutional and violates the privacy of Americans. The Census responded by noting that removing this requirement would do nothing more than to make the survey more expensive to conduct and less reliable, since response rates would likely drop and there would be no way to verify the accuracy of the information collected.

As a brief aside, a friend and colleague recently participated in the ACS survey as one of the 3.5 million people surveyed annually to provide up-to-date, granular level demographic, socio-economic, and economic data for neighborhoods, communities, metros, and states nationwide. After neglecting to send the survey in before leaving for vacation, he received a follow up reminder phone call. Then, after sending in the survey in, a Census Bureau official called to verify one portion of his survey. He erroneously answered that he paid $0 in electricity bills for the year. He was impressed with the measures the Bureau went through to ensure participation and accurate reporting by those surveyed.

And what do we have to show for the ACS efforts? Well, as it turns out: A LOT, which is why defunding it would send shock waves through both the private and public sectors. First, let us not forget that the ACS, fully rolled out in 2005, was a response to demands from communities, legislators, and businesses for Decennial-like data from the Census Bureau available more frequently than once every ten years. Turns out, data from 2001 is not entirely helpful for making community and business decisions in 2009 (someone might want to remind House Republicans of this fact). Annual ACS data is used to help determine how $400 billion in federal funding is appropriated. Communities, economic development organizations, and firms like Market Street use the data to help local leaders understand their community’s story: what’s broken and what’s working, leading to strategies and programs to address concerns and leverage new opportunities. Private businesses like Ford and Target use the data to understand consumer and household dynamics, which impact product development, placement, and marketing strategies. And, the federal government uses the data to make BIG decisions about new policies (health care reform, anyone?).

If you’re on board, contact the Census Project to join the list of organizations that oppose funding cuts and votes to make participation in the ACS voluntary, and please send a letter to your Senator letting him/her know how you feel.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Learning by Doing in Watertown, South Dakota

By Evan D. Robertson, Project Associate.

I’ve been as far north as Bird Island, Minnesota. Just two weeks ago, I can now claim to have been as far north as Watertown, South Dakota. Watertown sits on the stretch of I-29 between Sioux Falls, SD and Fargo, ND. Much of the land between Minneapolis and Watertown is primarily agricultural: the view from thirty thousand feet reveals neatly subdivided plots of land with undeviating roads vanishing far into the horizon. As we approached the City of roughly 21,000 people, the plane took a hard left revealing Lake Kampeska an immense body of water which I guess I should have expected given the City’s name. Having set a new record for northerly travel, I was in for a tour of a nationally recognized, best practice community college.

Lake Area Technical Institute is a two-year technical college just a few blocks from Uptown (Watertown’s geographic heart). The Institute was founded in 1965 as the first technical school in South Dakota. Enrollment during the 2010-2011 school year reached 1,638 students. Only 69 students were from out of state. Diversity was admittedly an improvement area the Institute is actively seeking to address. Of the 1,638 students, only 67 were non-white. Given the demographics of the surrounding community, however, this is fairly representative. Two of the most surprising statistics: 75 percent of students work part-time or full-time while attending school and 98 percent of students find employment upon graduating or are continuing their education.

Lake Area Tech has adopted what I would call an ethos of “learning by doing.” During our tour, while many students were deeply engaged in their textbooks (it was finals week), most students were involved in some form of activity be it diagnosing a mechanical difficulty on an automobile, repairing diesel engines, tinkering with circuit boards, programming manufacturing robots, or sending sparks flying by sanding down metal. This pragmatic mentality is supported by a generous local philanthropic community and alumni network. Many of the automobiles students were working on were donated by local residents or by those that just wanted to get their car fixed. Agricultural technology students are able to learn on the newest equipment thanks to Lake Area’s partnership with Case IH. From the alumni, LuAnn Strait (Director of Institutional Relations) casually mentioned to us that one of the former alumni who worked for a large global logistics firm donated a Boeing 727 that the company was planning to retire to the Institute, providing students with a real-world laboratory and indicative of the Institute’s relationship with the private sector.

All of Lake Area Technical Institute’s programs of study were carefully considered to ensure that the skills obtained by the student would be marketable post-graduation. The Institute will only create or maintain a program of study that has the potential to provide employment for graduating students. Moreover, programs of study are supported by an Advisory Board of professionals who ensure that students are receiving the most up-to-date training techniques and give feedback regarding graduates’ performance in the workplace. This connection with the private sector is vital, providing the Institute with tacit information critical to maintaining their effectiveness and their students’ relevancy in the labor market. This information exchange, along with a myriad of other best practices (such as providing joint-use classroom space to the local high school across the street and constructing a wind turbine for their energy technology students) has earned Lake Area Tech a top five spot in the Aspen Institute's Prize for Community College Excellence.

As I wrote about in an earlier blog (apologies for the shameless self-promotion), I’ve been contemplating how resistant community colleges and universities would be to the impending release of MIT, Stanford, and other top tier universities’ open source coursework. With the Lake Area experience behind me, it now seems clear that those institutes who are able to alter the classroom environment to one that actively engages students and adopts a practice of experiential, collaborative learning will thrive in the digital education area. You can replace the lecture, but you just can’t easily digitize a Boeing 727. You can’t supplant the pragmatic classroom.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Beyond Test Scores: Engaging and Empowering Kids in Community Initiatives

By Stephanie Allen, Project Assistant.

The city of New York has an interesting new way of dealing with its water-quality challenge. Nope, it’s not more storage tanks or deeper tunnels, it’s sixth graders.

Sixth graders at Stephen A. Halsey Junior High School are learning about techniques to prevent stormwater runoff into an antiquated combined sewer system that overflows during heavy rains, spilling raw sewage straight into the Flushing Bay. A partnership between five city schools and the Trust for Public Land enlists the schools’ students to help design and construct new eco-playgrounds that will capture and retain stormwater in order to reduce combined sewer overflows.

Replacing the existing asphalt schoolyards at these schools with more eco-friendly surfaces and ground cover, will indeed help the city with its water quality problem, but this project also has benefits for the schools’ students.

They’re learning environmental science. They’re learning about the drawbacks of impervious surfaces and the importance of using permeable pavers; the ability of trees, shrubs, and other ground cover with deep root systems to draw water deep into the soil; the benefits of collecting water in rain barrels; and the importance of having clean water. They’re learning how to apply the theoretical science they’ve learned from their textbooks to real world problems.

They’re also learning something else, something much, much harder to teach, something that, with our focus on test scores and performance records, we seem to no longer see as under the purview of overburdened public schools and teachers: they’re learning to be better citizens. They’re learning to pay attention to and get involved in projects that will help make their community a better place to live, work, and grow up. They’re learning that little changes that are easy to incorporate can make a big difference both environmentally and socially. School officials and local leaders are empowering these kids to effect change in their communities, showing them that they can use their knowledge and problem solving skills to make a difference.

An important concern of economic development (and urban planning more generally) is the development of tomorrow’s community leaders. I think projects like these are a great place to start. Projects like these involve kids at a young age in community beautification and development efforts, they have tangible effects that kids can be proud of having a hand in producing, and they have the potential for positive impacts on lifelong community participation.

I first read about this project in Tuesday’s New York Times. It’s part of a larger collaboration between the Trust for Public Land and New York City to provide safe places to play within a ten minute walk of every child in the five boroughs. That collaborative program is on target to develop 185 playgrounds and parks over the next few years.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


I’ve stumbled upon a handful of noteworthy stories in the last week or so – too many to weave into a single, coherent blog entry about a particular topic – so this month’s entry is a smorgasbord of articles for your reading pleasure. Or perhaps I was really just looking for an excuse to use the word smorgasbord.

“Beer bubble” in Bend?

An interesting story about the growth of microbreweries and their relative concentration in Bend, Oregon. And while the CVB and others actively promote brewery and brewpub tourism, some are concerned about a potential “beer bubble.”

Repopulating Downtown Cleveland

When I joined Market Street over four years ago, I spent nearly three months commuting from Alpharetta while looking for a new place to live in Midtown Atlanta. Once I finally moved, I joined a group of roughly ten thousand young professionals that moved into the core of the city between 2000 and 2010. Similar trends have been seen in Cleveland, but contrary to metro Atlanta, Cleveland’s downtown population is growing rapidly while the region’s suburban population declines. And while Midtown Atlanta still had plenty of vacant condos, property managers in downtown Cleveland are working from waiting lists.

1,000 New South Dakotans

Having completed work on a new strategy for Sioux Falls in 2010, and having just begun a new visioning process in Watertown, we’ve seen the economic vibrancy and resiliency of the South Dakota economy first hand. Although many envy the state’s incredibly low unemployment rate (4.3 percent), it’s incredible to consider what full employment would be in South Dakota absent significant skills gaps. The state has recently hired Manpower to support its new “1,000 New South Dakotans” initiative to help fill vacant positions in a few targeted occupations. The state found that there were roughly 1,700 open positions in four specific areas, with only 100 resident South Dakotans on unemployment rolls that possess adequate skills to fill these positions. During a recent trip to Watertown, our team was incredibly impressed with the programs, facilities, and corporate partnerships at Lake Area Technical Institute – a recent Aspen Institute Award winner as one of the nation’s top five technical and community colleges. Yet despite this resource, private sector representatives reported that there were potentially 400-500 manufacturing positions that could not be filled in this City of roughly 21,000.

Massively Open Online Courses

Evan Robertson recently wrote a great blog post about the emergence of open courseware at MIT and Stanford and the potential threat that online courses at such elite institutions may pose to traditional classroom education. The New York Times’ Room for Debate section (a personal favorite) recently invited a group of educators, administrators, researchers, and students to share their views on the potential benefits and pitfalls of open courseware. Most agree that it they are a great complement to traditional degree programs, but no substitute.

Urban Agriculture

Living in a condo on the fifth floor typically precludes one from having a garden. So what’s a guy that loves to cook (me) supposed to do in such a situation? Well, I took a friend up on an offer to help plant and tend his garden a few miles away, in exchange for some the fruits of the labor. This short video from the American Society of Landscape Architects provides a number of ideas for ways in which homeowners, commercial property owners, neighborhoods, and larger urban communities can encourage creative use and reuse of underutilized spaces to support urban agriculture.

Repurposing Vacated School Buildings in Tulsa and Kansas City

An interesting piece in Governing magazine discusses plans to repurpose school buildings that are now vacant due to school closures and consolidation in Kansas City and Tulsa. While few examples of specific projects are provided in the article, it does underscore the need to think about ways in which a vacated school will impact the surrounding neighborhood and the need to identify potential opportunities for reuse early on when districts are considering consolidation or closure, an increasingly common issue as districts face tighter budgets.

Friday, May 4, 2012

One Year Ago…

By Jonathan Miller, Project Associate.

Tomorrow, May 4th, is one year, to the day, that I started at Market Street Services. In my first year I have learned more than I could have ever imagined. I have worked in a variety of communities, including Vestavia Hills, AL; Gwinnett County, GA; Madison, WI; Henry County, GA; and Austin, TX. While each community is unique, the one common thread that binds them all together is a commitment to make their community better – the status quo is insufficient. Such an attitude is infectious and makes coming to work an exciting endeavor.

As some you may be familiar, Harper’s Magazine, a monthly publication, publishes what’s called the “Harper’s Index.” In each issue, the index presents a number of statistics in an easily readable format. So, in a nod to my one-year anniversary I have constructed an Index reflecting national and local happenings over the past year as well as some stats about my work.

Difference in the number of Americans employed: +1,594,000

Number of those in Georgia: +22,200

Number of those in Atlanta: +18,800

Percentage point change in the unemployment rate in Georgia and metro Atlanta: -0.8

Change in the national average price of regular gas per gallon: -15 cents

Change in the price of regular gas in metro Atlanta per gallon: -19 cents

Number of banks that failed in the United States: 75

Number of those that were in Georgia: 17

Number of homes that were built in metro Atlanta: 69,263

Percentage change in median home value in metro Atlanta: -12.4

Change in the percentage of Atlanta homes sold for a loss: +5.7

Percentage change in the price of oil: +0.67

Percentage change in the price of gold: +7.98

Percentage change in the price of Apple stock: +68.5

Days worked for Market Street Services: 365

Number of communities visited: 5

Aggregate population of those communities: 3.7 million

Number of miles traveled: 5,000+

Number of focus groups facilitated: 9

Number of survey responses analyzed: 3,170

Number of Google searches conducted: 8,856

Percentage of those occurring on Mondays or Thursdays (the days of the week with the most queries): 38.5

Rankings for Google queries of “BLS,” “Census,” and “Wall Street Journal”: 1st, 2nd, 3rd

Note: where May data was not available, the most recent month was used.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Tennessee Williams Economy

  By Christa Tinsley Spaht, Project Manager.

We all know America's postwar era saw major, major changes in the economy, especially in the Deep South which had not benefited from the earlier Industrial Revolution as dramatically as its neighbors to the north. And no one made dramatic changes into must-see melodrama like celebrated writer Tennessee Williams. Each spring my friends and I revisit several of his works committed to film—both famous and obscure—in honor of his March birthday. This year’s viewings got me thinking about the snapshots of economic transition he created through his sad and hilarious characters and their unfortunate circumstances.

Watching so much Tennessee Williams in a condensed period of time (which I don’t recommend doing alone—and why we assemble an audience) really draws out the themes he heavily relies upon over and over. Williams’ characters are always coming to terms with some sort of forced transition, most frequently the passage of time and advancing age but with that a changing economy and the implications that holds for their sources of income, lifestyles, traditions, and family histories. (With the exception of the Pollitts in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—I’m still not sure how they could be living in such luxury off of cotton in the late ‘50s, when most farms had switched to soybeans, corn, and the like.)

Most of Williams' protagonists seem to be on the decline, representing a time and economy on its way out while the forces of the modern world push in on them. There are never any clear winners or victors in these struggles; everyone loses something (it wouldn’t be Southern gothic if it had a happy ending, now would it?) but it demonstrates the human scale of the massive economic shifts that were occurring at that time.

Some of his works precede World War II, most notably The Glass Menagerie, set in St. Louis during the Great Depression—as Tom Wingfield puts it, “That quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy.” However, the most intriguing plays are those set in the Deep South during that remarkable postwar era of boom and transition.

Arguably Williams’ most famous and revered work, A Streetcar Named Desire sets up two characters to face off over the South’s genteel (for a very tiny group) past and its brash present. Think of Blanche DuBois, clinging to her last delusions of grandeur from a pampered life in the well-appointed family mansion in rural Jim Crow Mississippi, while sharing a cramped two-room apartment in the bustling, dirty New Orleans with her sister and brother-in-law who has no regard for Blanche’s once-elegant origins. Stanley Kowalski represents working-class America, diversity (in the casual mingling of different classes and races), fast-paced urban life, new styles of music (jazz and blues), and new immigrants.

Even Blanche’s relationship with the modern convenience of electric lighting is fraught at best, and she definitely doesn’t understand her demotion from inherited ancestral wealth to the working world, and that one can’t buy furs and pearls on a schoolteacher’s salary or solely depend on the kindness of strangers to make ends meet.  

In the struggle over the old and new modes of making a buck, entrepreneurs are often punished in some way for refusing to play by the rules of the Old South economy. There’s Siliva Vacarro in Baby Doll, whose newer, modern cotton gin is putting Archie Lee Meighan out of business; Lady Torrance’s father in The Fugitive Kind (or Orpheus Descending), who served African-Americans at his winery to the chagrin of bigoted townsfolk; and ultimately Lady herself the day of her new venture’s grand opening. These characters watched their livelihoods and dreams go up in smoke, literally, when the outdated competitor (Archie) or small-town vigilantes (the residents of Two Rivers County, Mississippi) decided they weren’t going to just "let the market decide" if the new business could succeed or not.

One character who tries to exploit the past for economic gain—Lot in The Seven Descents of Myrtle—succumbs to TB before he realizes his dream to transform his rotting family plantation into an antebellum amusement park. (The plantation, set right on the banks of the Mississippi River, is then swept away in a massive flood.)

Okay, enough doom and gloom. Williams definitely had a flair for the tragic and for laying on consequences that far outweigh any crime, lapse in judgment, or risk on the part of his characters.

Watching these plays and films now makes me wonder about today’s Dodson, Mississippis, the fictional setting of This Property is Condemned that falls to ruin when the railroad company lays off most of the town. Just allow me to force this metaphor when I’m talking about Tennessee Williams, the king of heavy-handed symbolism: I wonder who are the Blanches and the Stanleys of the 21st century? And who will be the Tom Wingfields, looking back on this time from some point in a future of even greater radical change?

And I also wonder whose canon is framing this time so poetically and prolifically for us. David Mamet? Because thirty years from now, I certainly don’t want to be hosting a mini-festival for Thomas Friedman books adapted to film.