A Data-Driven Framework for Smart Decision-Making in Small and Shrinking Communities
Lead PI:
Kimberly Zarecor
Many American small towns and rural communities have been in decline since the 1980s. In the Midwest, most communities have experienced this through shrinking populations, an exodus of younger people, job losses, and aging infrastructure. Evidence shows that these trends have continued over several decades and are unlikely to be reversed. Yet the research on small and rural communities has focused primarily on documenting and observing aspects of decline or promoting uncertain growth strategies, rather than understanding how communities can protect quality of life and community infrastructure while they shrink. This project aims to fill this gap by developing a new shrink-smart concept for small communities that utilizes data-driven tools to assist them in actively planning for shrinkage. The objective of the planning phase is a pilot study to test the feasibility and reliability of such tools in Iowa. The pilot study will use data from broadly available sources, such as social media, census, state, and municipal databases, for comparison with traditional metrics including unique baseline data from longitudinal polling in Iowa. This pilot study has three goals: 1) to demonstrate the feasibility of applying the shrink-smart concept to rural communities, 2) to assess the feasibility of measuring smart shrinkage through data-driven analysis, and 3) to test visualization methods for data analysis and communication to stakeholders.

The project's central hypothesis is that data-driven techniques will identify proxy metrics for indicators of smart shrinkage by using broadly available data sources to estimate the results of qualitative measures such as longitudinal polling. These proxies will replace traditional methods of collecting quality-of-life data, which are time-consuming, expensive and incomplete over large geographic areas. In the planning phase, we will establish criteria for types of smart shrinkage and select six-eight representative communities in Iowa for in-depth analysis. The research will be transformative for the study of small and shrinking communities because of its powerful integrated methodology that combines quantitative data-driven analysis with qualitative understanding of smart shrinkage that is verified through community engagement, spatial analysis, and on-the-ground data collection. This integrated methodology creates a new framework to help community stakeholders understand how and why some small and rural communities are able to protect their quality of life even as they lose population. This approach will also provide new opportunities for communities across the United States to make smart decisions that are likely to mitigate the negative effects of shrinkage before signs of decline appear. In addressing small and rural communities, this project brings attention to underrepresented cases in the research literature. This knowledge will be disseminated to stakeholders and the public through multiple venues in Iowa and beyond, including through Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. All of the extensible data pipelines and visualization techniques will be licensed through open source protocols.
Kimberly Zarecor
Trained as an architectural historian and architect, I began researching quality of life in small and shrinking rural communities in Iowa in 2017 with the support of a planning grant from the Smart & Connected Communities Program. I have since received a Track 2 IRG grant to continue this work in collaboration with residents of six small towns in Iowa as well as partners at the Iowa League of Cities and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. We are developing data tools and other resources that will help communities to actively work on stabilizing their quality of life even as they continue to lose population. In another planning grant project through S&CC, I am working with colleagues from engineering, design, and education on a project about STEM aspirations among K-12 students in Storm Lake, a growing town in the rural northwest part of Iowa, where a large meatpacking plant has brought large numbers of migrants and refugees to the community. Before I began working on large-scale, team-based research about Iowa, I worked for more than two decades on historical research about architecture and urbanism in the former Czechoslovakia Czech, and in particular the emergence of prefabricated housing technologies in the early decades of Communist Party rule in the 1940s and 1950s.
Performance Period: 09/01/2017 - 08/31/2019
Institution: Iowa State University
Award Number: 1736718