Maggie McCullough is the director of PolicyMap, an online data and mapping application at www.PolicyMap.com.
Tell me about PolicyMap.
PolicyMap is an online geo-database where we try to get from every public source that’s out there information about geographies around the country – information that people can see in a neighborhood or in a county or in a zip code, different demographic indicators, information about how certain things are changing over time in an area. We get demographic data from the Census, number of people, race and ethnicity data, what their incomes look like. We get crime data from the FBI. We collect unemployment data from the BLS [Bureau of Labor Statistics], we collect information about what kinds of jobs people have in different areas.
The data set that we’re releasing to the site tomorrow [actually Jan. 11] is called the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act Data. It’s information about the kinds of mortgages that people have when they buy a house or when they refinance their home. Each year this data comes out and we load it and display it in PolicyMap. You’re able to see this information pretty quickly in 2007 how things changed pretty dramatically when the whole housing market changed so much. There were fewer loans originated, fewer people were buying homes, fewer people were refinancing. While you had seen this big rise in high-interest loans, that dropped off suddenly and now you had that replaced with a lot of loans that are insured by the government. These are loans that are insured either by FHA or VA. In some places, they took the place of those high-interest subprime loans.
It happened across the country, but you can see it pretty pronounced in California where you have these counties that didn’t have any government-insured loans for the most part in 2004, by 2009 they’ve got over 50 percent. It’s a pretty significant trend.
For the government, it’s an increased body of risk. They just have more loans out there that they’re covering. One of the ways they helped shore up the housing market was by doing this. It really magnifies the change in the housing market that we’ve seen over the last few years. It really shows areas where the government has a lot at stake.
Tell me about some of the other kinds of data you collect.
We get vacancy data from the Postal Service, we get a variety of data sets from the Department of Housing and Urban Development about foreclosure risks. We make all of that available to the public for free. We also license data from other data providers, and we make that available to subscribers of PolicyMap. That’s data like home sales statistics that we update on a quarterly basis. Most of our subscribers tend to be state and local governments that are trying to track information about communities in a single place. They don’t have to go to 30 different data sources to collect information and map it for California. They can come to PolicyMap and pull up any one of those layers and start to see how an area is changing.
If they’re a state housing finance agency or they’re a local government, it helps them think “If we want to take on foreclosures in this neighborhood, maybe this is an area we should address first,” or maybe it’s “Here’s an area with a growing elderly population, so we need to concentrate attention here.” Whatever the strategic planning they need to do about planning in an area, it gives them a data source that can help guide their decisions.
So you help show government how to act more like a business?
That’s the idea. This term gets used a lot, but it’s about location intelligence, knowing what’s going in a place. Just like a private business, they select a site based on the market. If someone is setting up a new grocery store or Wal Mart wants to set up a store, they do a lot of research about the market conditions in an area before they make that decision. It’s the same here. Governments have been doing that for a long time. Our goal here was to make it simpler.
Don’t governments have people who gather data anyway, or are there fewer of those people around now?
They do. A lot of them have folks in house that gather data and have their own mapping software. What we’re saying is you can leave some of this basic data collection and basic mapping to something like PolicyMap and use those folks for more unique analysis.
How old is your business?
Its two-and-a-half years old. We are a non-profit. Our subscription-based model is self-supporting, and it allows us to continue to invest in the platform and collect more and more data. Some people turn to ads as a way to make revenue. We decided not to go down that route, so we don’t have any ads on PolicyMap. We sell subscriptions, either for a month or a year. There is so little real estate on the web page as it is. We try to make the map as big as we can so folks can see what’s going on in an area.
What’s next on your website?
The next set of data that we’ll be loading in over the next couple months is the new data coming from the Census. It’s not the 2010 Census that we all filled out most recently. That won’t be available for a bit yet. But the Census is rolling out something called the American Community Survey. It’s going to give us snapshots of data across the country. Most people have Census data from the year 2000 and they can see population, age, ethnic information. This information is going to give us a more real-time snapshot before the full data comes out. It’s going to be interesting to see how some of those trends have changed over time.