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PA State Data Center helps harness information

The world is awash with information – so much so it can be mind-boggling. But a center housed on the Penn State Harrisburg campus helps organizations, businesses, legislators and non-profits make sense of all that data.
Center delivers data dashboards

The Pennsylvania State Data Center, part of the Institute of State and Regional Affairs at Penn State Harrisburg, is a premier partner of the U.S. Census Bureau and Pennsylvania’s official source of population and economic statistics since 1981. Sue Copella, the Pennsylvania State Data Center (PaSDC) director said the data center helps turn raw information into understandable stories by organizing key data points into easy-to-read reports and graphic displays.

Digital dashboard solutions from the data center allow clients to display and analyze key indicators, mine data for trends to aid decision making, or monitor performance. “The data is all out there, but how to use it can be overwhelming,” Copella said. “Dashboards can help. They tell the story.” In addition to creating digital dashboards, the center provides consultation on data sources and acquisition, analysis and management, custom programming, database development, and mapping and other geospatial services. The data center also conducts technical training and workshops.

Now the data center and its community partners are making information about life in the capital area accessible to the public in the form of the web-based Capital Region Community Dashboard.

The data center recently partnered with United Way and several other community organizations to create the Capital Region Community Dashboard, which includes up-to-date information on nearly 100 key indicators in the areas of health, education, income, basic needs, and demographics.

The data center began by brainstorming with officials from United Way of the Capital Region, Dauphin County, The Foundation for Enhancing Communities, Partnership for Better Health, the Harrisburg Housing Authority, Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC, Penn State Harrisburg, Penn State Health, and Pinnacle Health System.

“We have storyboarding meetings with advisory groups,” explains Jennifer Shultz, manager of data services. “We determine all of the information they want to include, who we should get the data from, how to get it into the system, and then how to set it up graphically.”

The idea for the Community Dashboard grew out of a study called “Life in the Capital Region: 2014 Assessment of Our Community.” Such data is instrumental in designing programs to help the community, according to Rae Lynn Cox, vice president of communication and marketing for United Way of the Capital Region. While the assessment was available in print and electronic form, it was not in a platform to provide real-time data updates.

“There was a lot of interest, and we wanted to continue the study as a living document,” Cox said. “The dashboard meets this need to keep the community informed about local issues.”

The study, and the continuing data which is updated through the dashboard, has helped the organization launch initiatives in the fields of early childhood education, workforce development, and healthcare.

For instance, the study data showed that 79 percent of three and four year olds in Cumberland County, 75 percent in Dauphin County, and 92 percent in Perry County do not have access to quality pre-kindergarten education. A pilot program set to launch this spring will develop early education liaisons to work with low income families and connect them to programs which can help prepare their children for school.

The data also showed that 26 percent of workers in the area were earning poverty level wages. An initiative to form partnerships with employers will help workers plan and implement strategies to move up the wage scale.

Figures on rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and levels of pre-natal care showed the need to connect people with health insurance.

“We're using community healthcare workers to pound the pavement and help people navigate the healthcare system,” said Adrian Buckner, vice president of community impact at United Way.

The community dashboard makes that kind of information available online to anyone who is curious, Cox said. That could include residents who want to volunteer for worthy causes, businesses interested in following trends, or non-profits developing social programs.

The data center provides similar dashboards for other public and private entities. One for the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency helped police departments and court systems share data in a consistent way. A project for the Pennsylvania Commission Against Domestic Violence helped compare the effectiveness of police screenings. A dashboard update for the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs will help make it easier to get consistent data on addiction. A project for the Game Commission showed trends on hunting licenses. A project for Penn State helps administrators check the potential viability of new programs.

Data center staff will continue to work with United Way and the other partners to continually improve the community dashboard.

“The data is all out there. Our expertise is on how to use it,” Copella said.

Cox said the community dashboard is the only one of its kind in the capital region.

“Utilize it. Share the information,” she said.

Want to know more about your community?

The Capital Region Community Dashboard is available at

Here are a few statistics:

  • The population of the three county region was 565,006 in 2015, an increase of 3 percent since 2010. Cumberland County saw the largest gain, 4.6 percent.
  • The region can expect another 11.2 percent gain in population by 2040.
  • The population is becoming more diverse, with growth in the Hispanic population increasing by 28.2 percent since 2010.
  • The median house is worth $185,900 in Cumberland County, $159,200 in Dauphin and $158,700 in Perry.
  • The poverty rate increased in all three counties from 2005-09 to 2010-14.
  • The unemployment rate fell between 2012 and 2014. Cumberland County had the lowest unemployment rate at 4.5 percent.
  • The population is aging. By 2040, the number of residents over 65 will increase by nearly 80 percent, and the number over 85 by 132 percent.