Prior to COVID-19, the US economy was doing very well. On a hot streak since the recovery from the Great Recession began, unemployment rolling into 2020 was at a 50-year low, and Americans’ confidence in the economy was at an all-time high. For the first time, America had made it through an entire decade without a recession. Then COVID came.
This national story was no different than on the local level in Cobb County, Georgia. As part of metro Atlanta, Cobb County has seen tremendous economic growth in the last few years. In fact, leading into 2020, metro Atlanta was the fourth fastest growing metro in the country, and the region had just tied its record low unemployment numbers in late 2019 at 2.7 percent. A big part of Cobb County’s growth began back in 2013 when the Atlanta Braves announced they were moving to the county , sparking hundreds of millions of dollars in new development. To track economic growth in the area, the county’s officials tasked its GIS team with creating maps that track zoning changes, new building permits (for business and residential development), demolition permits, business license data, and more. Then COVID hit, reversing the county's economic trajectory and halting much of the progress it had made.
With the tools, maps, and infrastructure in place already, the county was able to quickly transition its focus to monitoring the impact of state-ordered shutdowns on the local economy. For example, business license data reveals the rate of new business licenses pulled, as well as the number of licenses that are not renewed. This will help county leaders get a sense for how many businesses have been permanently shut down from the impact of COVID, and can also help them evaluate the types of businesses that have been successful. They are also evaluating how zoning rules may change as a result of COVID restrictions such as social distancing, store capacity limits, and curbside delivery guidelines that have altered how businesses operate and how people interact in public space. These maps help to create a more holistic picture of what is happening in the local economy, and to assess the depth and breadth of the impact of the pandemic from an economic development perspective.
What these maps could not provide is a full view of the direct impact on the local workforce in terms of employment. When COVID hit, shutting down and/or altering business operations throughout metro Atlanta, the unemployment rate quickly skyrocketed to nearly 13 percent. So, beyond permit and business license data, the county wanted to get a sense of the employment trends and opportunities in the area, including which businesses were still looking to hire. The goal was not simply to try to track the number and type of job openings being made available, but also to be able to help county residents find work more easily during these challenging times. However, sourcing this information would have required sending county staff on site visits to local businesses, risking their health and the health of the public, and/or calling every business individually (which time did not permit).
To fill the void in this area, Cobb County’s GIS Manager, Jennifer Lana, and her team turned to crowdsourcing tools to survey the business community about jobs they are hiring for. The survey asks business owners and operators to provide the address of the store/office location that is hiring, the type of job they are hiring for (i.e., job title), a link to the application page, and other information that would be relevant to a job seeker. The results are plotted on a map (see below), with points color-coded by the type of job available to help users focus on the jobs of greatest interest to them. Users can also narrow down to jobs within a two mile radius of their address if transportation or other key barriers require them to stay close to home.
To help spread the word and encourage businesses to take the survey, the county partnered with the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Cobb Travel & Tourism Board, to get the message to the business community. They also leveraged several other channels including social media, local print and TV news, the county’s communications team, and all 5,000 county staff who spread the word through their own networks.
The effort is ongoing, but Lana noted in an interview that they have been very successful in these crowdsourcing efforts, noting that they have been able to get a very good sample size of the job opportunities available on the map. She also felt it was important to note that these efforts have come at little cost or time commitment to county staff. Once the surveys and GIS infrastructure were built and the word was out through their partners and various channels, they have been able to step back and watch as the businesses community took care of the rest. Just one staff member is now dedicated to maintaining the back end, including periodic cleaning of the data, which only takes about 20 to 30 percent of their time. This has allowed the GIS team to focus the rest of their efforts on assisting county leaders with requests for data analyses related to COVID response.
One challenge for Lana and her team has been getting job seekers in the public to use this resource. She noted that “citizens don’t typically go to the county website for information on job openings... It is pretty tough to get people to use the site outside of normal web traffic.” She went on to say that there is an ongoing effort to get people to use the site more and overall they are seeing a steady uptick in people turning to the site as a reliable source of information; “we are working on building that trust and recognition... It just takes time.”
Lana and her team have also used these same crowdsourcing tactics to monitor grocery store inventory, information about restaurants (e.g., curbside pick-up or delivery options), changing business operating hours, and availability of summer camps and daycares. The first key to success according to Lana is recognizing that everyday people (business leaders or otherwise) want to be involved in the collective response effort: all they need is a platform. The second, and perhaps most important thing, is empathy. “It is a tough time for a lot of people,” she said, “We have to step back and look at characteristics and struggles of the community and see what is important to them. There are plenty of tools and applications we can make, but we have to make sure we are doing work to support what they need most right now. Otherwise, these efforts won’t amount to much.”