Ever need to know how many single-family wood-framed houses were sold in the Midwest last year? Or the latitude and longitude of every farmers market in Wisconsin that sells herbs, flowers, and soap? What about the number of planes that sat on the tarmac more than three hours this past June? Or the annual sales volume of book stores in the United States for the past 20 years?
These might sound like crazy questions, but all of the above information is available through the federal government’s data portal www.data.gov. Data.gov houses more than 130,000 data sets that are freely available for download (and, no, that’s not a typo—more than one hundred thirty thousand data sets). These data can be invaluable resources for making smart managerial and financial decisions for our water and wastewater systems.
It’s true that we may never need to know book store sales in our jobs. But accessing reliable, comprehensive data can help us make sure we are providing water, wastewater, and other environmental services in fair, effective and financially sustainable ways (which happens to be the heart of our mission here at the Environmental Finance Center). Data.gov contains data sets in 14 broad topic areas including ecosystems, energy, and finance and includes data from federal, state, local, and tribal governments as well as from universities. You can browse the data sets by topic or search for specific keywords.
For example, let’s say that you are working for a local government developing a multi-year capital plan for your water or wastewater system. Financing the capital projects will necessitate several rate increases over time. Internally, your water system has good revenue and expenditure data, so you feel confident that the rate increases will cover the full cost of operations. But can your customers afford the rate increase? Data from the American Community Survey can show you what percentage of your residents have household income at various levels, and the Environmental Finance Center’s affordability tool can help you visualize what percentage of income your residents will have to pay for water and wastewater under different rate levels.
Projecting financial needs into the future can be tricky. Over time, what will happen to the number of customers you serve? What about the number of businesses? Are the businesses you are gaining (or losing) those that use a lot of water, or just a little? What about the cost of electricity—do you need to budget for increased power costs?
No one has access to a crystal ball. But we can look at trends in data to be able to make more educated guesses. The records of your water and wastewater systems will give you information to develop these trends, but the American Community Survey and the US Economic Census can show you changes in population and businesses (including what type of business) over time. The Energy Information Agency (EIA) has detailed information on energy costs.
The federal government data portal, though, is only the start. There is also a national network of state data centers where you can find data resources maintained by your state. Water and wastewater systems should also seek out statewide and regional rate surveys that can help benchmark financial performance, and these surveys can be conducted by the state, water and wastewater trade associations, private consultants, and universities.
Water and wastewater systems in North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Alabama, Arizona, and other states can access the EFC’s rates benchmarking dashboards and tools to make smart comparisons on rates and other financial measures with similar systems, and the EFC will be developing rates dashboards for five more states in the coming year under our Smart Management for Small Systems project.
If you think a data set should exist and would be helpful for making financial and managerial decisions, chances are it does exist—be sure to check data.gov, the state data centers, and our website, or perhaps try a simple web search. And then get analyzing!