Top 5 Questions About the Community Index Tool

The Community Index began six years ago as an effort by our team to document the key indicators of current and future vibrant communities. Fourth Economy takes a holistic approach to economic and community development. Our model considers a range of criteria to measure economic strength. The Community Index is made up of 20 indicators across five themes: Investment, Talent, Sustainability, Place, and Diversity. While we know there is no single recipe for economic success, we also know that these five areas are critical ingredients in vibrant communities everywhere.

From 10 to 1,837

Each year, we publish a list of the top 10 scoring counties. In 2018, we developed an interactive tool to allow others to see how our Index model ranks counties across the country. This year’s Community Index features data on 1,837 of the 3,007 counties in the United States, covering all counties with a population of 20,000 or more. Each benchmarks against all counties in the state, geographic region, and similar population size.

A great conversation starter

We debuted the Community Index tool at the International Economic Development Council conference in Atlanta. Our first users were inquisitive and had some great questions. Some of the most interesting questions we fielded include:

  1. What outcomes were unexpected?
    We were glad to see that the model does not identify a specific recipe for economic success. Communities that score highly across our categories do not come in one mold, but many—from rural cultural hubs to small, developing cities to booming metro regions.
  2. What should I do with this tool? How is it useful?
    We hope that people will use the dashboard to explore the economic strengths and weaknesses of specific communities, use the Index map to see who is doing well across the country overall and in specific metrics, and use the top ten to read about some particularly strong examples of regional economies.
  3. Why do all the counties with cities score so well?
    Generally, more densely populated places have economic and cultural assets that more rural or suburban places do not, and the model picks up on this. So on one hand, it’s important to compare among similarly-sized places. That’s why we’ve organized the counties by size categories. So, when comparing large cities, it’s important to realize that a score of, say, 85 (as with Allegheny County, PA) is not as high relative to its geographic peers as a score of 85 for small communities. BUT, there are also many small communities that do well in our model. Look, for instance, at our top ten list for mid-sized counties. Or, look at the even smaller communities of Juneau, AK, or Wasatch, UT, for some high-scoring examples.
  4. Why didn’t we look at counties with fewer than 20,000 people?
    Many of the indicators that inform the index model are population-based statistics that have been collected from sources like the US Census Bureau. For small populations, these data are less reliable (i.e., come with greater margins of error) and can be more significantly influenced by single contributors (e.g., a company opening or closing), so for that reason, we’ve chosen not to include small, rural counties in this version of the model.
  5. Why did you analyze at a county level?
    We analyzed at a county level because of the data set availability. It’s easy for us to combine indicators and to do a multi-county analysis for a region. For specific projects, we could apply the index model to other types of geographies, or conduct or more nuanced analysis (for geographies that are either larger or smaller than counties), but that is not part of this tool.

Looking forward

We see the Community Index as a starting point for communities, providing them with a baseline to help understand where they are doing well and see where there is room for improvement. Many of our most interesting projects stem from conversations with communities about where they are and where they want to be. Do you have a question you’d like us to answer? Reach out!

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