New Resources: The Power of Microdata

By Trevor V. Mattos, MPP Candidate, Graduate Research Assistant, Public Policy Center at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

Recently, the Public Policy Center tapped into the American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Samples (PUMS) for two ongoing projects: [1] Socioeconomic Conditions for Immigrants in Worcester, [2] Pay Equity for Women in SouthCoast, MA. These new, extensive datasets allow us to measure a wide range of factors that affect outcomes for women and immigrants in communities around Massachusetts.

Since 2005, the American Community Survey (ACS) has collected detailed socioeconomic data from 250,000 individuals per month, or 3,000,000 people per year. The ACS now serves in place of the since-retired decennial census long form survey, dramatically improving accessibility to current data.  The U.S. Census Bureau provides ACS data to the public in two ways. First, ACS data is published on in pre-tabulated formats, which users can access via American FactFinder. Second, a subset of microdata files (roughly two thirds) for both households and individuals are made available for download and independent data analysis.

Microdata allows researchers at the Public Policy Center to answer highly specific, relevant questions about social and economic conditions in many different settings. Microdata are separated into state-level files, within which geographic areas containing roughly 100,000 people, called Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMA), further delineate the data. Careful use of PUMS’ complex survey data can yield nearly endless options for statistical inference and estimation. Using PUMS can be tricky though, as one first has to isolate the data of interest using less-than-intuitive geographical area codes, then weight the data appropriately. Finally, researchers must navigate statistical software like SPSS or Stata to derive estimates, margins of error, and statistics. A few examples of the analytic potential of such data follow:

[1] The median annual income, in 2013 U.S. dollars, for white, employed women over the age of 16, with a high school education (or less) in SouthCoast, MA is $23,880.27, while that of Hispanic or Latino women with matching characteristics is $16,398.19.


[2] In Worcester county central, or Worcester city proper, there are 17,943 native born individuals holding a 4-year university degree, while for the foreign-born population there are 6,401. However, comparing these estimates to total population estimates reveals that 16% of the foreign-born population holds a degree, while only 13% of native-born individuals in Worcester are 4-year degree-holders.


[3] For the average foreign-born worker in Massachusetts, a statistically significant relationship exists between ‘years in country’ and ‘average annual income’. Regression analysis of ACS microdata shows that for each additional year in country, the average foreign-born Massachusetts worker earns an additional $927.11 per year, in 2013 US$.


The Public Policy Center is surging ahead with a number of different projects supported by the new analytic potential of ACS Public Use Microdata Samples. We are excited to use these new tools to inform the conversation on social and economic issues that impact SouthCoast, Massachusetts and beyond!



Acushnet Ave Economic Impact Project Update

After the first meeting of the steering committee, we are moving on to the next phase in our study of Acushnet Avenue’s economy. For early September, our research team is drafting a survey to be distributed to business owners in the Acushnet Avenue commercial corridor. After incorporating helpful comments from our colleagues at the CEDC, who have extensive knowledge of the Avenue’s business climate, we will begin surveying business owners. A major challenge is keeping the survey brief enough to be manageable for busy owners to complete in a short time, but also extensive enough to get an understanding of the challenges facing businesses in the area, where they get materials and employees, their working capital, earnings, access to technology, and opportunities for growth and future investment. Hoping both for a large response rate and meaningful answers from those who do respond, we will open the survey period later this month and conclude in mid-October. 

Since the report will also examine the role place plays in the Acushnet Avenue economy, we have contacted New Bedford’s Office Housing and Community Development. Eddie Bates is hard at work analyzing GIS information so we can have better understanding of the physical and built environment of the Avenue and it’s side streets. The data we receive from Housing and Community Development will show the location of trees, street lighting, public spaces, benches, and give us a detailed look at the housing density surrounding the commercial corridor. The office will also be aiding us as we investigate occupancy and vacancy rates. I’m very interested to see if we can determine vacancy by floor, as well as by building. Although getting street level space occupied is still a challenge for building owners along the Avenue, upper level tenants (whether mixed-income residential or commercial) will be key in securing long-term vitality for the neighborhood.

As the survey period wraps up, I will be going over Census and business records for the study area. With this analysis, I am hoping to show how the make up of the neighborhood’s residents and businesses has changed over time. Culling through the wealth of information we obtained from the ReferenceUSA historical business database, I have already noticed an increase over the last five years in grocery stores serving the needs of Central and Latin American immigrants.

Check back in for updates on the survey process and on our one-on-one discussions with steering committee members.

July project update

Here’s a rundown of our projects and tasks for July:

1. Friends Academy/Center for Education Innovation (CEI) evaluation

We recently wrapped up a survey of elementary school teachers across the New Bedford Public Schools in order to determine the degree to which their feedback about things like technology, collaboration, professional development, and instruction is different than their peers who are working with CEI. We’re also crunching numbers to learn about the impact of CEI’s program on the performance of the students of participating teachers.

2. LifeWork Project

We’ll be writing the first year evaluation report at the end of this month, a report that will document the impact this program has had on participants’ academic performance, career paths, finances, and well-being.

3. New Bedford Regeneration Committee

We’re also approaching the report-writing stage of this project. The report will outline a set of action steps recommended by committee members for regenerating the economy of the city and the region.

4. Health Data SouthCoast

The network of organizations that supported our development of a website that provides easy access to regional and municipal health data is getting ready to publicly launch the site, so we won’t preclude their efforts here. All we’ll say is that it’s ready to go!

5. Taunton HOPE VI

We’re conducting our third and final resident focus group tonight, with the goal of learning about how the program has impacted residents’ abilities to enroll in job training programs and access employment opportunities. Next, we’ll go about updating data to compare current metrics to 2012 baselines in the areas of housing, economy, socioeconomic status, and demographics.

6. NEW: Acushnet Avenue commercial corridor study

Thanks to a just-awarded grant from the Garfield Foundation, we’ll be spending the next six months studying New Bedford’s Acushnet Avenue commercial corridor and the degree to which it influences the local economy. This project will involve data collection and analysis, survey research, and engaging with neighborhood stakeholders to obtain objective information with which to advance the neighborhood’s revitalization.


June project update

Our workload this month eases off a bit with the completion of our report for the United Way Hunger Commission and the wrapping up of our evaluation of the LifeWork Project. (This easing is well-timed, given the loss of two graduate research assistants to graduation!)

This summer, the projects we’ll be immersed in include:

  • The pilot evaluation and evaluation design for Friends Academy’s Center for Education Innovation, which includes a post-participation survey of teachers as well as a New Bedford Public Schools district-wide teacher survey about things like technology in the classroom, collaboration with fellow teachers, and approaches to instruction;
  • Continuing this year’s evaluation of Taunton’s HOPE VI project, which includes distilling the results of our 25 heads of household interviews, conducting a series of focus groups on issues like health and early childhood education, and compiling data related to the surrounding neighborhood and the City of Taunton;
  • Reporting on the findings of the New Bedford Regeneration Committee, in partnership with our colleagues at MassINC; and
  • Working with what promises to be a terrific team of high school interns on a project we mutually identify and design.

We also have a few proposals in the pipeline, so we hope next month’s update will include news of new endeavors!

May project update

We’re on the home stretch with two projects this month: our report on the United Way Hunger Commission will be delivered at May’s end, while our year-end report on the impact of the LifeWork Project’s first year is being outlined in anticipation of end-of-semester data (you can read more about those projects here).

While the completion of those tasks–plus our students’ efforts to wrap up their semesters and, in Bob and Katya’s case, their graduate school careers–has kept us busiest, here are some other irons in the fire:

  • We recently wrapped up a survey of New Bedford teachers working with the Center for Education Innovation at Friends Academy, and will begin the data analysis component of this evaluation next month.
  • Bob and Katya just finished interviewing–in English and Spanish–heads of household affiliated with the HOPE VI project in Taunton, as part of that multi-year evaluation project.
  • We continue to support the work of New Bedford’s Regeneration Committee, which will meet twice more before we and our partners at MassINC develop a report documenting their efforts and strategies.
  • The Sociology course with which we partnered for the semester just presented the findings of their community-based research projects. One of the students’ required deliverables was a blog post documenting their findings; stay tuned as we get those posted here!

April project update

There’s one fewer project to provide an update on this month: just last week, research assistant Mike McCarthy delivered a report on the needs of Bristol County Veterans to our client, the Veteran’s Transition House of New Bedford. You can read about Mike’s experience leading that project here, and read his full report on our website.

Here’s the status of our major projects this semester:

1) LifeWork project

Katya recently presented baseline data for two cohorts of women now enrolled in the Women’s Fund of Southeastern MA’s LifeWork Project. These women are working toward degrees at Bristol Community College, getting support from mentors and the LifeWork coordinator, and participating in financial literacy programs, all with the aim of helping them earn a family-sustaining wage upon completion. In addition to organizing all participant data in Salesforce and using its tools to run reports, the UI has surveyed the network of partner organizations about their role in this collaborative effort. We have also surveyed participants to learn about their experiences and needs following a focus group with women in the program.

Currently, the LifeWork coordinator is conducting follow-up assessments to track changes in participants’ lives since the start of the program. We will use that data and data provided by BCC to determine the degree to which one year (or, in the case of the second cohort, one semester) in the program has impacted their outcomes. This reporting will be done in May/June, and will conclude our role in designing and piloting the first year evaluation.

2) Taunton HOPE VI

As Bob has written, our team has just begun the second year of evaluating the process and outcomes of this project on individuals, families, the neighborhood, and the city. Right now, this entails conducting 25 interviews with the same heads of household we interviewed last year to determine the ways in which their lives and those of their household members have changed. Upon the completion of interviews, we’ll begin a series of focus groups with HOPE VI residents as well as community service providers to help inform the degree to which the Taunton Housing Authority can positively impact the lives of its current and former residents.

3) United Way Hunger Commission study

In addition to interviewing folks in Taunton, Bob has coordinated an effort to interview approximately 20 organizations affiliated with the United Way Hunger Commission as part of our effort to help that project track inputs/outputs and learn about the needs of its partners. Interviewing will conclude this month and a report on our findings will be furnished to the United Way in May.

4) Health data hub

Our project to develop a website that aggregates and presents health data for SouthCoast stakeholders has completed. We are now working with project partners to launch the site externally, after which point we’ll begin conducting quarterly updates to the site’s content for the following year.

5) New Bedford Regeneration Committee

As Mayor Mitchell noted in his State of the City address, the Urban Initiative has been engaged to work with MassINC to support the work of the recently formed Regeneration Committee. This committee is comprised of city business leaders who are working to identify short-term economic development priorities for New Bedford. Our role is to record and distill meeting proceedings, integrate data and existing research in the process, and develop a report detailing the findings of this work.

6) Center for Education Innovation at Friends Academy

This project to design and pilot an evaluation for CEI’s programming in New Bedford Public Schools has recently begun with a pre-participation survey of currently engaged teachers. Next, we’ll work with the school department to obtain classroom-level data on student outcomes that we will analyze in conjunction with survey results. All the while, we will be working with CEI staff to develop a long-term evaluation strategy that will help CEI ensure that its programming is improving outcomes for teachers and students alike.


March project update

This month, we expect to wrap up two projects: we’ll be producing the final report on Veterans’ needs in the SouthCoast for our partners at the Veteran’s Transition House in New Bedford, and we’ll be launching (softly) the website we’ve developed to serve as a clearinghouse for public health data, resources, and news in greater Fall River and greater New Bedford. We also finalized our first annual report on Taunton’s HOPE VI project; stay tuned for its publication on our website.

We’re also adding a project to our portfolio. Last month, the Center for Education Innovation at Friends Academy reached out to us regarding their interest in evaluating the impact of their programming in New Bedford Public Schools. We’ll be spending the rest of the school year implementing a pilot evaluation of their programming while developing a long-term evaluation plan that will facilitate ongoing assessments of CEI’s process and impact.

In addition to these projects, our team is:

  • working with the United Way of Greater New Bedford to assess process and impact around its Hunger Commission,
  • developing a report on the progress of the LifeWork program of the Women’s Fund of Southeastern MA and fine-tuning LifeWork’s long-term evaluation plan,
  • advising students in Professor Gloria de Sa’s Urban Sociology course in their efforts to conduct applied research in New Bedford, and
  • developing an evaluation plan for the City of New Bedford Health Department’s strategy to improve health insurance coverage among children and families in the city.

We’re also beginning to brainstorm around the theme of our high school internship this summer. Last summer, our interns addressed college access in the SouthCoast. Suggestions are welcome. We’re also looking at our hiring needs, as our two grad assistants–Katya Starostina and Bob Golder–are graduating in May. If you know a UMass Dartmouth undergraduate or graduate student who may be interested in supporting our work, please put them in touch!

February project update

The Urban Initiative has added another project to our portfolio this month. Yesterday, we kicked off a study of the United Way (of Greater New Bedford) Hunger Commission’s operations and impact that will continue through the semester. We’re excited about this project for a few reasons: it represents our first partnership with the United Way of Greater New Bedford, it’s likely to have a positive impact on the Hunger Commission’s efforts to feed the region’s hungry, and the project is being managed by our second year graduate research assistant, Bob Golder. What that all boils down to is that this project is a perfect fit for our mission. We look forward to providing updates over the next few months.

In addition to this new endeavor, we’re also working on:

  • the evaluation of LifeWork, which continues through the summer;
  • the needs assessment of SouthCoast Veterans, in partnership with the Veteran’s Transition House;
  • the fine-tuning of a website that will serve as a dashboard for the region’s public health community;
  • the development of an evaluation plan for a New Bedford Health Department campaign; and
  • supporting students in Professor Gloria De Sa’s Urban Sociology course in their efforts to conduct community-based research (more on that later).

January project update

Here’s a brief rundown of what we’re working on this month:

1. Newsletter for the National Dropout Prevention Center

We’re putting the finishing touches on an upcoming newsletter for the NDPC which we were asked to guest-edit. The topic is ‘urban issues in education/dropout,’ so we’ve come up with a selection of pieces related to the fact that education is inextricable from issues like poverty, housing, and immigration. Stay tuned for the link!

2. Veteran Needs Assessment

Our effort to survey Veterans in the SouthCoast continues, with the goal of providing New Bedford’s Veteran’s Transition House with original data on services and supports needed by Vets in our community.

3. SouthCoast health dashboard

Site development continues as we wrap up efforts to add content to what will eventually be a web-based resource for anyone looking to learn more about public health in our region and to use data to inform decision-making. Next, we’ll ask some of this project’s key investors/stakeholders to review and provide feedback on content before we regroup with our web developer to add tools to enhance functionality and user-friendliness.

4. LifeWork evaluation

We’ve just finished building out the Salesforce database for this project, and as we wait for data on students’ academic outcomes from the fall semester, we’ll be undergoing a round of training to learn how to use Salesforce for reporting.

5. National League of Cities/New Bedford Health Department

The City of New Bedford Health Department was recently awarded a grant from the National League of Cities to design a campaign to improve health insurance rates among children in New Bedford. The Urban Initiative/Center for Policy Analysis is serving as the evaluator for this project, and we’ve recently begun working with Health Department staff to brainstorm approaches to measure an important issue that is sometimes hard to document.


December project update

December will see us finishing up one project (for this year, at least) and plugging away on some of our ongoing work. We’ll also be serving as editors of the next newsletter of the National Dropout Prevention Center, the topic of which–quite appropriately, for us–is urban issues in education. We look forward to sharing that early next year!

1. HOPE VI evaluation

We just submitted our first annual evaluation report to the Taunton Housing Authority for review and feedback; once it is finalized, we’ll be sure to share our findings here and on our website. Beginning in early spring, we’ll get started with the second year of evaluation by conducting another round of focus groups and interviews with the same 25 heads of households who participated in interviews last year.

2. SouthCoast Veterans needs assessment

We kicked off the surveying component of this needs assessment, being done in partnership with New Bedford’s Veteran’s Transition House, at New Bedford’s Veterans Day Parade. There, we had the opportunity to test out the survey questions with the help of a handful of Veterans who were attending or participating in the parade. This allowed us to determine whether questions needed rewording or clarification. On Thanksgiving, we sent out about 160 surveys with meals delivered to the homes of area Vets by the VTH and a cadre of volunteers (including our own Mike McCarthy!). We will continue to distribute surveys far and wide across the SouthCoast this month, and we hope we’ll soon begin entering results into our statistical software (SPSS).

3. SouthCoast health planning dashboard

We’re continuing to add content to the site that will serve as a planning dashboard for SouthCoast public health stakeholders. This includes data related to health outcomes in the region, data collected by the organizations sponsoring the site, resources where users can get more information, and resources to aid the original research efforts of public health stakeholders (like survey tools and best practices).

4. LifeWork project

While we wait for end-of-semester data that will show how LifeWork participants fared in their first semester at BCC, we’ll be developing a Salesforce database with which to track participant progress and share updates with key project partners. This should help the LifeWork project sustain evaluation efforts in years to come, and it should also help project staff and partners quickly gauge (and respond to) the project’s progress toward its goals.

5. National Dropout Prevention Center newsletter

We’ve been asked to edit the NDPC’s newsletter with a focus on urban issues affecting education and dropout. If you have ideas or would like to contribute content, get in touch!