Friday, March 21, 2014

Eternal Sunshine of the Data Geeks Mind

By Ranada Robinson, Research Manager.

Last week I attended the REMI (Regional Economic Models, Inc.) Policy Conference here in Atlanta. The conference featured several speakers who discussed how they have leveraged REMI in their work. Among my favorite presentations were A Tale of Two Cities: Economic Competitiveness in Birmingham and Charlotte and The State-by-State Impact of the President’s School Readiness Program. Here is just a brief overview of each of them.

A Tale of Two Cities was presented by Parker Bedsole, REMI staff. He merged two projects they conducted in Birmingham and in Charlotte in the presentation. Although not a perfect comparison – the Birmingham project focused on the six-county Birmingham region, and the Charlotte project focused on the city of Charlotte itself – it was still a pretty interesting exercise. The REMI model was used to forecast population, employment, GDP, and personal income, and it was clear that Charlotte is experiencing significantly higher rates of growth across these variables than Birmingham. The city of Charlotte is expected to continue outperforming Birmingham over time. A key takeaway of this presentation was that communities across the country need to evaluate whether they are making policies that cater to the Baby Boomer generation or to the Millennials, who Parker says, outnumber Baby Boomers and will be the source of tomorrow’s innovation. Communities focused on the older, nearly retired generation, says Parker, are setting themselves up for extinction.

At Market Street, we work with clients regularly to figure out what’s best to sustain their communities in terms of prosperity and quality of life. Balance is very important, and we’ve found in many communities that it is possible to strike compromise between seemingly different target constituencies. Creating (or maintaining) a place where people feel welcome, have the space to take entrepreneurial risks, and provide residents the ability to live, work, and play near home are all key in competing in the post-recession “New Economy.”

The State-by-State Impact of the President’s School Readiness Program presentation was led by Dr. Richard Sims, Chief Economist at the National Education Association. Dr. Sims talked through a REMI model he has created to show policy makers how much impact educating preschool-aged children will have on the economy. Although there are many measures that could be forecasted, the most important to most politicians, per Dr. Sims, is employment (direct and indirect). Although it should be clear to us all that increasing the chance for success for children – who will eventually be adults – is something that will have enormous long-term benefits, politicians are very interested in short-term tangible results like new jobs.

The model was run for each state and aggregated for a national total. The School Readiness Program is planned to begin in 2014 and end – as a federally funded program – in 2023. At that time, states will have to decide if they want to fund its continuation or potentially suffer politically if the program is popular but they decide to discontinue it. According to the model, the program will spur 87,300 new jobs in 2014, increasing each year and peaking in 2020 with 397,000 new jobs then tapering off, adding fewer – yet still significant amounts of – jobs through the program’s lifetime.

One important differentiation that Dr. Sims made was to cull out education jobs since it’s obvious that more teachers will be hired as a result of the program. Because he wanted to show that there is an economy-wide impact of supporting this program, he wanted to ensure that policy makers could see that new jobs would be created across the board. While many of the new jobs are related to education, about 30 percent of them will be non-educational. Sales, building and grounds maintenance, management and business, and healthcare occupations are among those that will receive the greatest impact as a result of the School Readiness Program.

I really enjoyed seeing how my fellow data-driven professionals use various data collection and modeling methods in their work. It’s also always great to see how Market Street’s work ties into the work of other types of organizations, especially those working on policy research. Data driven decisions are critical in a number of ways, the most important of which is benchmarking. The ability to determine whether a decision has resulted in a positive, or sometimes, negative change is crucial to implementation success.