Closing the opportunity gap in rural America

Partner Spotlight | Blog | 5 mins.
Written By: Kelsey Thompson | Posted On: 01/25/2022

This March, Morgridge Family Foundation will present our first ever MAP Project48 competition. The fast-paced impact-athon challenges teams from Columbia University, University of Missouri – Columbia and Parsons School of Design to build meaningful data visualization solutions for the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI). 

At the end of the 48-hour competition, student teams will deliver a data visualization ‘cookbook’ to CORI. The goal: readily available, high-quality data visualizations that provide a solution for the unmet needs of rural leaders, policymakers, journalists, researchers and other stakeholders invested in imagining what is possible for rural America.

Before the upcoming competition, MFF sat down with the CORI team to talk about why data, and the ability for it to be visualized, is important and how it will help unleash the potential of rural places. 

To really understand how CORI uses data to improve the lives of rural Americans, let’s start at the beginning. What do they mean by data, really?

“When we bring data in, it’s quite an extensive process,” explained Stephanie Tomlin, Director of Data and Mapping at CORI, “Imagine a file of many thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of rows and hundreds of columns of information that give us details about rural communities.”

In these data sets, a row may represent a specific region, like a county or a statistical area, and a column may represent some aspect of those areas, from demographics, such as poverty level, to types of jobs available. Stephanie’s team at CORI brings these rows and columns, across multiple datasets, together and analyzes them to paint a clearer picture of rural regions and identify areas with high potential for a digital economy ecosystem. 

All that data crunching serves a higher purpose. CORI’s mission is to close the rural opportunity gap by building digital economies that support scalable entrepreneurship and lead to more tech jobs in communities across America. In order to revitalize and empower more rural economies, CORI and their partners need to understand the challenges and opportunities these communities face.

While CORI’s work is not limited to data and mapping, it is a central building block behind many of their programs – which are proven to drive life-changing results in the communities in which they work.

“Our team is really good at understanding that the data has to be accessible to a wide audience,” said Tomlin. “So, whether it is somebody deep in economic development or somebody’s parent or a policy maker, the data we produce has to be something that people can interact with and understand. That’s why visualizations are so essential.”

What kind of needs are met by better data on rural areas? The first is simple: knowledge. By gaining insights into their community’s unique challenges and opportunities, as well as available funding, rural leaders can better apply for government or nonprofit grants and new commercial investment. Rural areas need data to justify broadband internet expansion, revitalize struggling economies, raise people out of poverty and celebrate diversity. 

For example, one of the data points that CORI examines is a region’s proximity to higher education. Often, colleges and training programs in fields like math, data science and computer science send the vast majority of their graduates to large cities. The rural communities right in their backyard don’t capitalize on attracting that highly-skilled workforce. Armed with data on what those graduates offer and what they need, rural communities can appeal to graduates and employers to attract new jobs and residents to their area. 

Which brings us back to MAP Project48 and the “cookbook” of data visualizations the teams will create. The possibilities are nearly endless. 

As Tomlin explained it, “A picture is worth a thousand words. If a rural community wants to pursue funding, they can find the data visualization they need [in the cookbook] and bring it into their application. The cookbook brings it all together and shows them how to recreate it on their website, in funding applications or in the community, wherever they need it.”

“This resource will be useful not just internally in our organization, but in other organizations that are doing this kind of work,” she continued. “If we really want to be successful, we need to be reaching across the aisle and collaborating with as many different stakeholders as we can. This is a really great way to get that going. And maybe others will do it, too.”

With new and improved data visualizations, what are the kind of outcomes CORI expects for rural communities? Some indicators of success include private and public funding, more jobs, flourishing entrepreneurial and digital ventures, and increased life satisfaction for rural residents. 

One of their primary goals, Tomlin said, is to use data to change the narrative about rural America. There are a lot of assumptions made in popular culture and news reporting about rural communities. CORI already works to break down inaccurate assumptions through their work but clear and accessible data visualizations will accelerate that process. (Take their rural knowledge quiz to test yourself.)

CORI also sees positive outcomes in capacity building.

“The teams that we work with in rural areas are very often small, with sometimes one and a half people,” explained Rebekah Collinsworth, Director of Communications at CORI, “The data and the information that [Tomlin’s] team gives them opens up doors that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to open because data in rural areas is so challenging. Data is the foundation for providing people in rural communities the opportunity to understand how they can change and grow.”

Subscribe to CORI’s newsletter to stay in the know about all their projects and to learn more about the ways data and tech can positively affect rural America. Subscribe to MFF’s newsletter, The Reach, or check out both organizations on social, @ThinkMFF and @Ruralinno, for the exciting outcomes of MAP Project48.