In the years following that fateful meeting in Madison, Urban3 has pushed to empower communities around the country with new insights into their own data. Inspired by Ian McHarg, we’ve elaborated from our first comparison of the two buildings in Asheville to map the concept of value per acre (VPA) across entire towns and regions. We view maps as geographic stories that make information real to people. We also look at the cost side of the ledger, and we look into the economic future with scenario planning tools. It’s not enough to know the revenues. As any Strong Towns advocate knows, our infrastructure costs are eating us alive. Our team of analysts work with complex information, but the resulting visualizations explain the issues in a clean and intuitive way. I’ve been met with a range of reactions, from inspired to skeptical to downright angry. Throughout the hundreds of talks I’ve given, here are a few things I’ve learned:
1. Keep it simple: Start small with a local example, and do the math on one of your own community’s buildings. For some inspiration, check out Daniel Herriges’ article featuring our work from last year: "Value per Acre Analysis: A How-To for Beginners"
2. Don’t just beat people over the head with statistics: tell them a story. Storytelling is as old as humanity, so leverage this to make your case for a stronger town.
3. Don’t tell people the issue, show it to them. The story of information should explain the issue.
4. Throw in a few jokes: it takes a great deal of humility to question ourselves, so keep things light.
5. Above all, be intellectually curious and honest. Ask questions about the systems and policies that shape our world, and interrogate why policies act the way they do, but keep your biases in check along the way.
We’ve found that whether it’s mapping road infrastructure, impervious surfaces, or value per acre, there is power in leveling the playing field. Information equity means allowing the whole community access to the same apples-to-apples data, and arming them with the ability to make smarter decisions for the long haul. In my work, it means ensuring that a sixth grader and a PhD in Economics should both be able to understand their community’s economic health. And in your daily life, whether you’re speaking at a city council meeting or introducing a friend to the Strong Towns movement, always remember — A picture is worth a thousand words.