Fall 2020

Student Team: Alisha Gurnani, Michelle A. Zee, Gretchen Streett, Alison Ryland, Kyung Suk Lee, and Asahi Nino, in partnership with the US Census Bureau and the Environmental Protection Agency

Challenge: Create digital tools that help rural communities access and use data to implement solutions to economic, environmental, and human health challenges, taking care to reach places that have limited professional capacity and small budgets.

Problem Statement: In a rural Delaware community, a much-needed new health center is built in an open space designated as coastal land along a six-lane highway. Less than a quarter mile away, the walkable historic downtown is experiencing growing business vacancies. How might public data have led local decision makers to choose a more accessible site that could have catalyzed new business opportunities on Main Street? How much additional coastal open space could be conserved? Considering far-reaching challenges like loss of industry, extreme weather events, other economic shocks, and even lack of access to data and broadband internet, small towns and rural communities are struggling to strengthen their economies and revive downtowns while providing healthier lifestyles and cleaner environments for their residents. By taking advantage of walkable street grids and historic architecture built by generations gone, rural communities can also improve air quality, protect local watersheds, conserve open space, and reduce waste. However, rural communities often lack the capacity, data, strategies, or financial resources to tackle downtown revitalization, as they often have limited resources dedicated to comprehensive planning and regional collaboration. What’s more, rural communities may lack access to private and public capital for sustainable economic development and revitalization. Lack of or limited access to broadband internet also takes a toll on a community’s ability to access economic opportunity. The result can be development that fails to take advantage of the communities’ assets, creates long-term maintenance costs, and undermines health and environmental goals.

Envisioned Outcome: Rural communities can quickly and easily access curated datasets and implementation strategies to support sustainable economic growth—growth that is community-driven, leverages existing local assets, and provides walkable, compact downtowns to support the health of residents and ecosystems.


  • Demographic and socioeconomic data (e.g., human capital, labor force characteristics) - U.S. Census
  • Walkability and transit access – EPA Smart Location Database
  • Environmental, geographic, climatic, cultural, and natural resource profiles – EPA, EnviroAtlas, Fish & Wildlife Service
  • Social Vulnerability Index, CDC 
  • Food security and food access – USDA Food Environment Atlas, USDA Atlas of Rural and Small Towns 
  • Economic performance factors (e.g., housing, health services, educational, cultural and recreational resources, public safety)
  • Assets such as anchor institutions, access to nature amenities, new and emerging economic drivers
  • Infrastructure assets (e.g., water, sewer, telecommunications/broadband, energy distribution systems, transportation)
  • Emerging or declining clusters or industry sectors
  • Workforce factors (e.g., innovation, supply chains, state and local laws, financial resources, transportation, energy cost, taxes, bonding capacity, land use patterns)

Solution: R Story

The QMSS team partnered with users, data experts, and product development experts in a human-centered design process to develop a tool that would help economic development in small rural towns in the United States. They got to know advocates from rural communities and learned about rural identity, the wide variety of assets in smaller communities, and the unique challenges they face. These initial discussions highlighted the criticality of cross-functional work to ensure that the final deliverable meets the needs of targeted end users. The QMSS team creatively distilled the key takeaways from these discussions to develop a usable prototype that excited the key stakeholders. 

Partnering with the town of Manistee, Michigan, and using publicly available data from the U.S. Census, EPA, BLS, and more, the QMSS team developed R Story: an all-in-one data visualization tool. Targeting residents, entrepreneurs, and developers, the tool helps local leaders champion their communities by saving time and getting easy access to data. Data is organized by region and by audience and is synthesized seamlessly by customized dashboards for each of the community's external stakeholders. R Story helps provide figures and visuals to small rural community leaders to enhance their presentations, meetings, and grant proposals for stakeholders in economic development. The community leader from Manistee, Michigan is already planning on using the tool in preparation for their next round of discussions.

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