Skip to Main navigation Skip to Left navigation Skip to Main content Skip to Footer

University of Minnesota Extension

Extension > Community > Community Features > Data-informed decision making helps communities thrive

Data-informed decision making helps communities thrive

Author: Joyce Hoelting
Content Source: Ben Winchester
Winter 2010


Use of 2010 census data one example

Census data collected in 2010 (see related article) have begun to trickle into public decision making. And that’s a good thing. Why? Because reliable data, interpreted properly, can help communities address problems, improve public services, support business, get funding, build leadership, increase cooperation, and much more. In short, data-informed decision making can help communities thrive.

Using data locally

Online resources have made data of all types — including census data — more accessible to anyone involved in local decisions. What does data-informed decision making mean for communities? It means that data become an integral part of community discussions, and that current data is tapped to test assumptions and balance opinion with information. Although data cannot and should not provide the sole source of information, data informs the process and the people, helping communities get a lot of work done. That’s why Extension programs often includes strategies for using data in community decisions.    

  1. Make your case, support your cause. Data help bolster successful grant proposals, effective arguments to local officials, and attention-getting news releases that produce media coverage. Data back up the hopes, dreams, opinions and stories that your community wants to put forward.
  2. What you can do:  Consider making a “boilerplate” data-rich description of your community available to nonprofits, government programs, community groups and the media in your area. This makes it easier for these groups to make their case and bring new resources to your community.

    Dive deeper:  Since 2009,Extension’s Community Economics educators have been delivering economic impact analysis reports to communities to help them make their case for economic development projects. Communities using these reports have been successful in, for example, affecting state appropriations and creating buy-local campaigns.

  3. Define problems, count your assets. Sometimes problems such as population decline are bigger, smaller or more nuanced than we assume. Or good news might not be obvious at first glance. Data can hold up a mirror and throw a light in the dark corners.
  4. What you can do:  Dig deeper into data, perhaps with the help of local college students or other local resources, to look at the whole picture and think critically about the future.

    Dive deeper:  Extension’s report on the impact of population shifts (see “brain gain” article) can be the impetus for deeper community conversations and planning in rural communities. Extension educators are available to present this data to groups.

  5. Retain and attract business; encourage entrepreneurship. Population, age, race, income and housing data can help businesses evaluate market conditions, new opportunities, product adjustments, and more.

    What you can do:  Community business groups and financing organizations can provide data to existing and prospective businesses, as well as entrepreneurs, to aid them in planning and decision making.

  6. Dive deeper:  Extension’s Market Area Profiles use census and other data to create full reports on local markets. Communities that have sponsored these reports make them available to businesses through local Chambers, banks, and other organizations.

  7. Build bridges to other communities. Partnerships and collaboration among contiguous counties, communities and regions are becoming more common. However, data also can spark alliances among communities that may be geographically separate but face similar demographic shifts and challenges. 
  8. What you can do:  Take a look at statewide data. Are there other communities with similar demographic dynamics? Seek out information from those communities to learn how they have addressed change. This can generate new ideas and energy.

    Dive deeper: Extension has found that statewide initiatives such as Horizons (which helps small communities interested in addressing poverty) and the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities initiative (which helps communities interested in broader adoption of technology) make stronger connections happen among like-minded communities. Get involved with multi-community initiatives like these to build bridges for your community

  9. Inform the public, challenge assumptions. Sometimes census and other data can provide indisputable evidence that change is inevitable and thus garner support for difficult decisions. Moreover, leaders may need to educate the general public and other stakeholders to prevent erroneous assumptions based on data. For example, 2010 census data about educational attainment is skewed by the presence of a prison in one Minnesota community. While it’s important to recognize the prison as a major employer, it also should be noted that the inmate population reduces the town’s average for years of schooling completed.
  10. What you can do:  Be ready, and even proactive, to educate the general public and important stakeholder groups about the meaning behind the numbers.

    Dive deeper: When Extension works with communities in policy development and strategic planning, the process typically starts with presentations of data that help communities understand information before they move into interpreting and planning. Consider what information your local planning will incorporate.

  11. Build representative leadership.  Do the advisory committees, boards, volunteer groups and other representative organizations in your community reflect its diversity of age, culture, educational attainment and occupations? Are the processes for making decisions engaging them? If not, it’s important to remedy the situation and work for civic engagement and good process design in decision making. Research reveals that engaging the public leads to better informed decision making and stronger solutions to problems. (Learn more about the benefits of public participation in this Extension tip sheet.)
  12. What you can do:  Review your census and other applicable data to compare community demographics with that of local leadership. If the leadership profile doesn’t match the community’s, consider recruiting new leaders from the full diversity of residents in your town.

    Dive deeper:  A number of communities have implemented Extension’s leadership program to train and encourage local residents in leadership roles. Other communities have tapped our facilitation resources to help design helpful decision-making processes. These programs have been successful in recruiting more residents in community work.

  13. Find the stories behind the data. If your town’s demographics are changing, you need to look beyond the statistics and talk to the people involved — whether they are aging residents or Somali immigrants. In this way, you will learn about their concerns and discover opportunities.

    What you can do:  Seek stories behind the changes that data reveal, and create forums where those stories can be shared. These stories can make a big difference in community leadership. Inviting a wide range of residents into the discussion can increase their stake in the decision-making process.

    Dive deeper:  Extension’s Assessing Social Capital program helps build connections by training volunteers to implement a survey of residents on how they experience connections in the community. These surveys seek to reach out to representative samples of community residents.

Learn more

  • © Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.
  • The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer. Privacy