A new mapping tool provides data and information to catalog opportunities and difficulties in local rural economies.
The organization that created the maps says the data visualization tools are designed to help policymakers, investors, funders and local economic developers create jobs and development in rural communities.
The Center on Rural Innovation’s (CORI) Rural Opportunity Map was released last week. The Rural Startup Scout provides data “on broadband infrastructure, educational attainment, STEM degrees, patent activity, young companies and other local assets to highlight Opportunity Zones with emerging tech sectors. The map is designed to help Opportunity Zone investors identify rural areas that are likely to produce promising tech startups,” according to CORI. The Local Leader Action Map assists rural leaders understand their assets and provides tools for fundraising and demographic support.
The Daily Yonder’s Bryce Oates interviewed CORI Executive Director Matt Dunne about the innovation mapping project. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Oates: This is a very impressive set of data and maps. Tell me about the audience you hope to reach. Who should be using these data visualization and mapping tools?
Dunne: Way back when we started the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI), we realized that rural communities hadn’t really been a focus of economic development attention or reporting since the  recession . There have been some stalwarts and occasional stories about the unique economic challenges in rural places, but there hasn’t been a lot of traction. We knew that things had really changed after the Great Recession in rural places. The recovery had occurred in most urban communities, but not in rural. So one of our first hires was a data scientist to help put together information to tell this story.
We started aggregating data around rural places and doing it in a rural context. For instance, we mapped where there is a 30-minute versus a 3-hour drive time to a university campus, and also compared that to a place where there’s a university or technical school. The context for rural people matters, as a 45 to 50 minute drive is fairly regular drive-time to get where we need go, to do the things we need to do.
We are mapping places where fiber-to-the-home is being built, where broadband exists. It’s important to document gaps in rural connectivity, and to highlight places that have scrappy and savvy strategies. There are rural municipal electric companies and small telecommunications companies that are building world-class connectivity. Surfacing those places where that is available, and they are numerous, are good places for locating high-tech jobs and economic growth.
We didn’t know before we started engaging with the larger technology and philanthropic communities how little they understood about rural access or the changes that had happened. We successfully obtained funding from a variety of sources for this work, including the WalMart Foundation, Mastercard, Schmidt Futures and Rural LISC to build out a tool that could help policymakers, local economic developers, philanthropists and investors be more strategic with their resources. Also, the tool is there for community leaders to understand their context and comparisons with other communities, and to be able to describe their core assets easily to funders, policymakers, USDA and a variety of other potential partners.
Oates: If I’m a rural economic development professional, or a potential investor in rural enterprise of some sort, what data and information can I find on the map?
Dunne: We held a convening at the New America Foundation where we brought together a variety of stakeholders of potential end-users for these tools. What we heard loud and clear was that as much as we wanted to build just one map, that wasn’t going to work. To make information really useful, local leaders wanted a specific map to be able to look at their community from the inside-out. But also, for a potential investor, or a journalist, they need to be able to look from the outside-in to rural information and data.
So we created the Local Leader Action Map that folks can use in their community, and it has all kinds of information about demographic data, population, poverty rate, population change over time. And also looking at things like proximity to institutions of higher education, the speed of broadband, high school dropout and four-year college attainment rate. Then, to be able to compare that data with both the state and nationally. That’s really useful information if you’re looking for potential investments and for grants. We also included some asset data. Where are there historic buildings? Where are there breweries? Where are there childcare centers? Some of the things that are required for a successful local economy. Then, you can take that local data and compare your community data with others in your region, state or even nationally. That’s important to make communities understand that they are not in isolation, whether that be by asset or by deficit.
Two other specific things that were requests: One is the definition of rural. They are all over the place, and that definition is not even consistent from one agency to another.
Oates: Right. Some agencies even have multiple definitions themselves. USDA has several working definitions of rural depending on the program.
Dunne: We baked in all of the definitions of rural for federal grant award recipients. You can take a look very quickly to see if your community qualifies for a particular grant program. That is linked directly to the final piece, where we have geocoded every federal grant awarded. You can look up your town and it will give you a complete list of grants received from the federal grant, whether that be for technology or housing or infrastructure.
Oates: What datasets did you draw from to build these maps? Are you using data from the Census Bureau? The USDA Economic Research Service?
Dunne: We’ve been scouring all kinds of datasets and have had great cooperation and collaboration at Census especially. They’ve provided the data in as good of a format as they can, and then we clean it up to get it surfaced. USA spending data is a separate dataset to document where federal grants are going, more difficult to navigate. We’re trying to help to unlock that data and make it easier to use for the broader public. We also went to other agencies for some additional data, such as housing and home vacancy data available from HUD (Housing and Urban Development). We have over 400 datasets uploaded and cleaned. Not all are in the map. We also supplemented the government data with some fun facts like where the breweries are throughout rural communities.
Oates: There’s a good amount of focus on the term “Opportunity Zone.” Can you explain about that carved out phrase, that designation, to explain what it means for rural America?
Dunne: Opportunity Zones are certainly a hot topic right now. I think with the best of intent that Tim Scott and Cory Booker brought to that legislation, they’re meant to create financial incentives for investors to put capital into communities that are struggling. When you look at the landscape of opportunity zones that are available throughout the nation, the vast majority of the acres in Opportunity Zones are in rural places. Unfortunately, the early dollars that have been going into the zones have been real estate deals in urban places that are, quite frankly, doing pretty well. We think that it was important to surface the rural opportunities that exist so that if they’re looking to deploy investments to defer capital gains, we can help point to rural places that have incredible assets that would yield the investor a solid return while closing the rural opportunity gap.
Oates: Tell me about the Rural Startup Scout Map.
Dunne: We designed that map for policymakers and investors. We also put in the map indicators we believe will surface communities with ecosystems ready for scalable startups. As we know, a decline in entrepreneurship in rural places is also a contributor to the current rural economic crisis. Outside of Opportunity Zones, fiber-to-the-home and proximity to four-year colleges, there’s a couple of other places that are seeing some investment. Those are places with a relatively high concentration of STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] degrees.
There are also rural places with a higher percentage of total jobs with firms that have been around for less than five years. We think that’s a much more important indicator than just the number of companies and jobs alone. It’s much more indicative of places where the startup ecosystem already exists and where some additional input can help that ecosystem to grow and flourish. This all adds up to challenging one of those narratives that’s out there about rural communities, that you can’t build scalable startups in rural America. A large part of this is to change that narrative.
Oates: Is that your ultimate goal? Are the maps and tools you are building there to break through the false narratives of rural stagnation? To reframe the discussion for investors and policymakers around rural opportunities instead?
Dunne: It is about changing the narrative. Lots of people are pulling together to change that right now. We have a chance to do it. But also, it’s about delivering real resources, real funding to rural regions. It’s about leveraging investments that flow to rural folks using their brains and their grit and their tenacity to build a cool new application or service to scale that can deliver economic growth and jobs rural towns and regions. We’re building services for investors looking for opportunities. We’re helping philanthropists leverage tools to be better at filling gaps so that they can be strategic and use their resources to get more done. And it’s about helping policymakers to see the actual change and benefits their funding and grants are making to deliver positive growth in some rural communities. It’s happening, and the maps and data are there to show how the right mix of policies and regulations and funding can be used to create the right conditions for jobs and economic improvement.
The final piece is a focus on rural economic development folks. They are some of the hardest working, most impressive people I’ve worked with, both in terms of navigating the new landscape of job creation and in working through the complexities of sharing their local situations and conditions with funders, prospective companies and potential investors. We hope we’ve been able to create tools and maps that these economic developers can actually use for downloading, snapshotting and using in proposals. These are tools and resources that are scarce in rural organizations and are usually only available in urban areas with huge information technology resources. We think this will help rural communities become more effective, more adaptive, faster and more competitive in obtaining resources and funding.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the “2018 recession.” We should have said “2008 recession.” We apologize for the error.