Why County-Scale Data is Insufficient When the Goal is Positive Community Change

Recently, a map generated last year by SCOPE was re-posted by SRQ Daily as a data factoid titled, "[Poverty] Income Below Poverty Level." It was framed as evidence that Sarasota County is better off, economically speaking, than many counties in Florida.  This is a great example of why everyone needs data at a more local scale in order to recognize what it going on in the county where we live. It is easy to understand how the map got framed as evidence of our county's relative economic success.  When the whole of Sarasota County is compared to all other counties in the state of Florida, it appears that there is a smaller proportion of people with income below poverty level here in Sarasota County.  If we leave it at that, everybody tends to feel pretty good about the state of our local community.

However, when we "zoom in" to take a look at areas within the county, a different pattern comes into view.

At this point, it is not yet possible to use neighborhood boundaries to make comparisons in Sarasota County.  (This is what the Community Data Collaborative is working to develop.)  For now, the closest comparison is an analysis by census block groups, which are groups of about 40 census blocks.

When census block groups are compared in Sarasota County, it becomes clear that there are some block groups here where the proportion of residents with income below poverty level is among the highest in the state of Florida.

Furthermore, these block groups tend to be clustered, reflecting concentrated poverty, which is of particular concern.  And these block groups often are right beside block groups where a high proportion of residents have very high income, which creates dynamics of income inequality.

When we take a look at Sarasota County relative to other counties without also examining within-county patterns, we risk making broad generalizations about our county that result in local community problems going undetected or unacknowledged by those who are not experiencing them firsthand.  These generalizations can also compromise our ability to capitalize upon the many assets that exist within the community to make things better.

When we look at more detailed data, we can begin to identify patterns across neighborhoods throughout the county, so that we are better able to recognize and respond, together as a community, both to opportunities and to hazards as they arise.

This is why the work of the Sarasota County Community Data Collaborative is so important.  Until these local data are available for everyone to examine and reflect upon, we are "flying blind" as a community when it comes to navigating local efforts to bring about positive change.

In the meantime, we need to be especially careful about the conclusions we draw from available data.

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If you are interested in contributing to local efforts to increase the availability and accessibility of local community data, please contact Allison Pinto at SCOPE (941.365/8751 or apinto@scopexcel.org) to find out how to get involved in the Community Data Collaborative.