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Part of the series “Viewpoints on Resilient and Equitable Responses to the Pandemic” from the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing people around the world to question how this virus will affect the many public and private systems that we all use. We hope this collection of viewpoints will elevate the visibility of creative state and local solutions to the underlying equity and resilience challenges that COVID-19 is highlighting and exacerbating. To do this we have asked experts at UNC to discuss effective and equitable responses to the pandemic on subjects ranging from low-wage hospitality work, retooling manufacturing processes, supply chain complications, housing, transportation, the environment, and food security, among others.

Donald Planey is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of city and regional planning. He researches the economic geography of regional governance with a particular interest in the political interaction between different spatial scales of government and the role of civic organizations in brokering the regional coordination process. In this episode, he discusses the Carolina Tracker, a resource for data and analysis on ways the pandemic has impacted North Carolinians.

Transcript – Viewpoints on Resilient & Equitable Responses to the Pandemic. Donald Planey: Carolina Tracker

The Carolina Tracker is a web tool meant to make important, day-by-day and month-by-month COVID-19-related socio-economic data available to North Carolina’s policymakers, researchers and communities. The pandemic has impacted peoples’ daily routines, personal safety and also the economic health of North Carolina itself. We wanted to create a tool that could help North Carolinians not only procure data about the pandemic’s impact on our state, but break different datasets down by the state’s social geography, allowing for users to compare different localities and to understand the local and regional contexts of the pandemic’s impact on the state.

The Carolina Tracker gathers together datasets about different sectors of North Carolina’s labor markets, social services, businesses and other areas onto a single platform. The Carolina Tracker site is designed to make access to these datasets easier for the public, and also to help explain important trends and nuances in the datasets that the team has gathered together.

The Carolina Tracker project began from conversations between scholars at the Department of City and Regional Planning towards the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Shortly after the pandemic began, various layers of government, academia and the nonprofit sector began providing national-scale data tools meant to help guide public policy. However, as regional and urban planners, the Carolina Tracker team’s leadership – consisting of DCRP faculty members Nikhil Kaza, Noreen McDonald and Nichola Lowe – recognized that there were important questions about the pandemic’s impact that couldn’t be answered with national or strictly state-scale data. Questions about how the pandemic was affecting different types of metropolitan areas, places within metropolitan areas, or rural, non-metropolitan counties, need to be pursued as well, as we collectively work to respond to the major social and economic hardships generated by COVID-19. So, the Carolina Tracker is meant to fill that gap.

I want to summarize the content of the Carolina Tracker, to give an idea of why it is a useful resource during these difficult times. There are 31 distinct datasets currently available on the platform, divided into subareas, such as employment, housing, travel, destinations, spending and society. These are accessed under the site’s “visualize” tab, where users can also break down these datasets by multiple geographic schemas, as well as data formats. In other words, it offers various options for cutting up time and space within the datasets. It also enables users to generate their own maps and charts, and also includes guides explaining metadata for each of the 31 datasets.

Additionally, we composed a series of short blogposts we’ve dubbed “stories,” which are meant to explain the context behind key datasets included on the platform. Our available set of stories is still growing, but as of this recording, users can find 11 on Carolina tracker. These go into important issues such as how the pandemic has impacted data collection and social programs across the state.

Assembling a new database is difficult, especially if it requires day-by-day, regularly-updated coverage, as the Carolina Tracker does. Various members of our team had to get creative in pursuing data sources that could serve as important indicators for issues such as local economic health, social vulnerability and changes in daily life during the pandemic – as it is happening.

One of the opportunities offered by both the datasets and the stories on the Carolina Tracker is to build a stronger idea of how space, place and social vulnerability are interacting during this pandemic. North Carolina is a state of large and small metropolitan areas, as well as rural places outside of any given metro. In data related to employment, social services or investment, we’ve seen a broad interaction between social vulnerabilities – based on ethnicity, race, class and gender – and what we social scientists often dub “space” or “regionality.” Space refers to how factors such as travel distance, streets layouts, somebody’s personal mobility and other related phenomena influence our collective lives. Place refers to how we identify the spaces. For example, how we become familiar with different cities or towns throughout our lives. Regionality refers to how sense of place along with spatial dynamics, interact to form regions. A region can be Piedmont, the middle section of North Carolina, or it can be a metropolitan region such as the Charlotte Metro.

We have found that, across many datasets and in many ways, many demographic categories interact with place and space in ways that are crucial for policymakers and the concerned public to understand.

Here are some examples of important insights we’ve extracted from the collected Carolina Tracker datasets, to illustrate. Before the pandemic, North Carolinian renters in core urban areas had the highest rates of eviction filings in the state. At the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, eviction filing rates across North Carolina actually dropped, but then started to trend upwards as the pandemic wore on.

However, Carolina Tracker team member Ethan Sleeman found that the pandemic flipped the pre-pandemic trend, and now non-metropolitan rural renters face the highest risk of having evictions filed against them. Why did non-metropolitan, in other words rural, renters begin to face disproportionate risk?

Childcare offers another example, as Carolina Tracker team member Kaitlin Heatwole found in her research. There was a major drop in childcare enrollment across the board in North Carolina, at least at the start of the pandemic. However, enrollment decline is particularly concentrated in regions of North Carolina with higher unemployment rates. Stop and think about this for a moment. Where women are struggling the most with employment, the pandemic has added new barriers to finding employment as they have had to shift to take on childcare work previously done at these facilities. What can we do to help them, as a state?

The Carolina Tracker has brought together planners and planning students from the field of regional and urban planning’s many subfields on its team. One thing from the get-go that we agreed on was that we didn’t simply want to make a site with a visualization tool, but a platform that combined multiple imperatives: public outreach, policy relevance and careful consideration of what can – and in some cases can’t – be taken away from these datasets, by providing users with context about where this data comes from, and the potential advantages or disadvantages of different datasets.

However, there are definitely major takeaways from the team’s own research on North Carolina’s pandemic conditions, takeaways that need to be heeded by local and state policymakers.

Firstly, while major forms of social vulnerability were exacerbated by COVID-19, peoples’ ability to move around, commute or produce important goods and services also varies by metropolitan location, or the broader economic structure of the region they live in. Responding to the negative social harms caused by the pandemic is not simply a matter of accounting for different demographic or economic categories that North Carolinians may fall into, but putting those vulnerabilities in their proper place – which I mean literally. The ways in which social and economic vulnerabilities are expressed look different based on one’s position within a region or county. However, the link between social vulnerability and spatial position is a two-way street. Using Carolina Tracker’s tools can help policymakers, service providers and the public begin piecing these two factors together in a way that is place sensitive.

As I conclude, I would be remiss for failing to acknowledge important support the Carolina Tracker project has received. Carolina Tracker is sponsored by the North Carolina Collaboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill. It received funding via the North Carolina Coronavirus Relief Fund, appropriated via the North Carolina General Assembly.


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