We’re living in the age of data visualization.
Data is driving the way we make decisions and understand our world, from how many steps you walked to how you spent your money, to how many hours you spent staring at your phone.
Within local government, there’s an increased focus on making public data accessible, and using it to inform policy and programs.
But many local governments, especially in small and medium sized communities, aren’t fully tapping the power of the data they have available. They often don’t have the tools and time to collect it — by the time someone has found and sorted through excel documents and reports to compile a data set, that information is already outdated.
Without reliable data, it’s harder for these local governments and their partners to make fully informed decisions. Often, this data is out there and ready to be used — towns and cities just need a little help harnessing it.
That’s where Townfolio comes in. The Saskatoon-based startup collects public data from over 100 sources (including everything from census data to real estate intel) — compiles it automatically into visuals and dashboards, and makes it available to local governments and their constituents.
As a result, local economic developers don’t have to spend their time tracking data down, and local investors and administrators can make more informed decisions.
As Govlaunch works to build the global wiki for local government innovation, we’re highlighting a series of Disruptive technologies — innovative companies who aspire to bring local governments cutting-edge products, which have the potential to fundamentally change the way local governments operate and innovate. We chatted with the Townfolio team about how their product democratizes data for local governments, resulting in more transparent economic development.
Economic development needs more information
Townfolio’s co-founders found their way to the idea through different sides of the economic development game.
Davie Lee was working as a site selector for the Irish government. His job was to assess municipalities to see whether they’d be a good place to do business. Lee spent hours scouring local government websites trying to find information on demographics, labor statistics, and the likes. Many cities didn’t have this data available. Others put it up in long PDFs or spreadsheets. Lee says:
“This information was supposed to be available for the public, but it was hard to find even if you knew where to look. There had to be a better, faster way to access it.”
Meanwhile, Ryley Iverson was working for a company that provided loans to local entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs would approach Iverson with plans for new businesses — say, a local coffee shop in a specific neighborhood. Iverson would ask for any data or information that indicated that if a business opened in that neighborhood, it would be successful. Not only did a lot of the entrepreneurs not have this information, they didn’t know where to try find it. Iverson saw an opportunity:
“If entrepreneurs or local governments could get their hands on more details, they’d be able to make smarter investments.”
In 2015, the two introduced Townfolio to address these needs. Says Lee:
“We wanted to create a platform where we can consolidate all this information together, visualize it, and have it easily accessible by anybody — whether that’s a site selector, an economic developer, or even just a regular citizen.”
How Townfolio works
At its most basic level, Townfolio provides a real-time, data-driven profile of a community, with everything from population and income data to commuting schedules and quality of life metrics like weather and health insurance coverage.
This allows the local government to tell a better story about what their city or town looks like, using current data. It helps investors and entrepreneurs make more informed decisions. It also saves a lot of time.
Because the data that powers the profiles is open — that is, publicly available and free to use, Townfolio can quickly set up each municipality. In fact, in many cases it already has. According to Shawn Setyo, Business Development Associate at Townfolio:
“We’ve built 38,000 profiles within the Townfolio platform. So essentially every single municipality in Canada and the U.S. already has a profile within Townfolio.”
Ultimately, says Setyo, the goal is to get this information on the local government’s website, not just house it on the Townfolio site. This implementation is as easy as putting a YouTube video on the city’s website (Townfolio uses an iFrame, so the city just has to embed a line of code).
Once the profile is on the city’s website, the information will be refreshed automatically, as Townfolio’s data scrapers pull new data every time the sources are updated. No data entry is required — Townfolio automatically pulls from over 100 public data sources, and the city’s profile can be customized to match the town’s colors and style. Charts and profile sections can be exported for use in reports.
Of course, some communities’ needs are more complex than others. Says Setyo:
“Some municipalities just want to set it and forget it and have it there for everyone to use. We also have some super users who have created very customized profiles, where they’ve added information like business licenses, how many new dwellings they have, construction activity, and so on. It just depends on the municipality, and how engaged they want to be.”
Beyond the community profiles, the platform also has a number of other innovative features to help drive economic development.
Townfolio’s “Compare” tool can present data points from the local government’s profile against another municipality, to help sell the opportunities one city may offer over another. Says Setyo:
“A lot of our users are economic developers and they’re competing for resources and investment money. This is a good way for them to easily highlight their city’s advantages.”
Some local governments are using Townfolio’s data aggregation and visualization tools to track their own progress against goals or community plans. This usually incorporates proprietary municipal data — the city enters the data such as rentals or vacancy rates into a portal and it instantly gets translated into graphs and visualizations, creating an easy-to-read dashboard with real-time information. Setyo explains:
“Squamish, British Columbia has a plan that goes all the way until 2040, and they’ve been tracking a lot of information to see where they are in terms of meeting goals, and where they need to put their attention.”
And the platform even has an economic development marketplace, where cities can post opportunities for anything from real estate to physicians wanted.
All of this comes at a price structure based on a town or city’s population. A one-year contract starts at around $3,000, though Setyo says most users opt for the three-year plan that can lower the cost more. If a user wants to incorporate their own data, or have Townfolio implement customizations, this comes at an additional cost.
The value of open data
The Townfolio platform’s automated use of open data benefits local governments in three main ways:
Many city and town economic developers work in understaffed or under-resourced departments. They just don’t have time to research and aggregate the data, let alone visualize it and keep it updated.
By automating this process, Townfolio saves local governments thousands of dollars in administrative work. Actually, more like tens of thousands, says Setyo:
“We actually figured it out for one municipality. If someone had spent all this time doing this on his or her own, it would have been just shy of $20,000 over three years.”
The cost savings are significant, but they aren’t the only benefit for local governments. The instant access to a range of data points provides an accurate picture of what a community looks like. Before Townfolio, sharing this info wasn’t always easy, says Setyo:
“A lot of the public data sources, in Canada and beyond, are just archaic. It’s in spreadsheet form and it’s just not very accessible for most people.”
This information isn’t private, or proprietary. It’s just hard to find. The Townfolio team believes that shouldn’t stop it from being used. Setyo notes:
“We feel that because it’s open and public data, it should be accessible by everybody. With a tool like Townfolio, we can truly take that public data and make it democratic and accessible by anybody. And when local governments have it on their websites and it’s easy to understand, it can really be taken advantage of.”
Better decision making
Access to information about a community directly impacts the ability for businesses and entrepreneurs to make investments in that community.
The more data there is, the more confident an individual seeking to open a coffee shop can be that there will be enough demand to succeed. The easier this data is for other people to access, the more likely the coffee shop owner will be to get a loan or investment.
As COVID-19 puts new strains on local businesses and economies, it’s critical that this data be available and understandable without draining cities’ already limited economic development resources. Setyo notes:
“The world’s changing at a rapid pace and data can play a huge role in the growth of a community — especially when that data is accessible by anybody.”
At Govlaunch we agree. Decisions can’t be made in a silo. The more information is shared and used to drive decision making, the better off local governments and their citizens will be.