Thursday, January 13, 2011

meta-news, micro-numbers

Some meta-news first.  The Scranton Times-Tribune is moving behind the paywall.  Or going to try it at least. Not quite sure what their model is that they think will work better than others, but hey.

Also micro-meta-news question in a sense.  Is this our former traffic-man Joe Grata writing in the Valley Independent? Mon Valley population becoming smaller, older and poorer. Or someone else?

While that story comes close to doing what we have generally been advising against, which is using the new American Community Survey(ACS) data to report population counts, they are not the only one doing so.  The new data is intended to be used to observe characteristics and the population counts you get may not reflect what is ground truth.  Why is a long answer, but that is how the survey was designed.  In fact, in the data just reported, the data reflects some population controls that remain derived from the 2000 census....  so it's a bit problematic to report changes in population with respect to data from 2000.

OK..  Skip that.   I will add that they have a decent set of 'instructions' there on the left of that story with a great line about "For more detailed information and additional data, you'll need to do some computer gymnastics. In Step 3, start with "detailed tables" instead of "data profile."  Computer gymnastics?  A technical term?  or my avocation?

The story did have some interesting snapshots of communities in the "Mid-Mon Valley".  My technical point above notwithstanding, I suspect most of the qualitative observations are as the story describes. Could be worse even.  Is Braddock outside the "Mid" Mon-Valley?  I only ask because the most shocking number I have seen so far in the ACS data is that Braddock has increased in housing unit vacancy from 28 percent in 2000, to over 36 percent in this recent release of ACS data.

After 2000 I would point out that Braddock's vacancy rate was higher than anywhere in the state other than Centralia, which had this minor excuse of being evacuated by the state due to unquenchable underground mine fires. So the higher Braddock number must be #1 this time around I figured? 

Numbers are never as easy as folks like.  For housing vacancy, especially in Pennsylvania, you need to account for things like seasonal vacancy.  So the first number you might get looking at vacancy may just reflect that a lot of housing in central PA is only being used part of the year... often summer housing.. or for hunting season.  That data is in there, but you need to know to look.  So I take that seasonal stuff out, and rank all municipalities in Pennsylvania. Centralia falls out this time with the ACS data because I think they have actually gone in and demolished the vacant homes. Can't be 'vacant' if there is no structure there in the first place.  Some hold-outs I hear, something about no taxes if you are a de-facto squatter in your own home in Centralia.  Makes sense since you technically don't live anywhere anymore if you are sleeping at night in a completely off-grid Centralia abode. Utilities, services, and I suspct even mail service should be long gone.  Kind of an off-grid mecca possibly.  

But is Braddock #1 when it comes to vacancy?  Turns out it comes in at #2 with number one being Ohiopyle, PA.   Huh?  Is Ohiopyle the new blight capital of Pennsylvania? I really think not.  Data is data and no data is perfect despite popular misconceptions. I suspect the actual vacancy rate is accurate enough, but someone collecting data coded some structure as being vacant, but did not realize it was more seasonal housing that will be more than filled through the summer season. 

So I can't technically say Braddock is the most vacant place in the state... though I suspect the numbers really do say that it is. I bet the 2010 Census numbers will be a bit clearer on this so I will recompute this when we see those numbers soon enough. What I have not gotten around to is then comparing that to other vacancy rates in municipalities across the nation.... I really will be surprised if Braddock's vacancy rate is not near the top, if not the literal top, real vacancy rate for an entire municipality anywhere in the nation.


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