Student Voices: Creating Easily Accessible Rural Data

Hello. I’m Ricky Rojas, a senior at University of Minnesota Morris majoring in Economics and minoring in English and Statistics. I’ve worked at the Center for Small Towns since fall semester of 2013. Most of the projects I’ve worked on have been centered on analyzing data, but it’s always been more than just numbers. All the projects at the Center for Small Towns has a human element that makes them more tangible than just a simple report, because the projects we work on directly affect local, small town communities. Every project, whether it be “data intensive” or not always revolves around a human context of local citizens within small town communities in Minnesota (and maybe other states? I’m actually sure on that).

Currently, I’m editing an interactive website that highlights the population and migration statistics in Minnesota as far back as 1900. The website is constructed and hosted through the Shiny Package via the R statistical software. The original data page was created by Ben Winchester and was up on the web from the early 2000s until 2013, when it was taken down due to some security flaws in the UMM page. The idea behind this project is to make a visually appealing, easy-to-use, interactive, informative page where community members, community and economic development professionals, and everyone else can acquire more knowledge around the population of their townships, county, city, etc. The website contains tables and graphs, with the all the corresponding data being downloadable by whoever is using the website. The new rendition of the Data Page was created by Natasha Miller, a student-worker at CST, along with Kelly Asche and Rebecca Haider serving as the Staff co-leads for the project.

Most of what I do during work hours is learning more about the Shiny package through blog posts, web forums, and sometimes online tutorials. R is an odd language where there really isn’t a set, formulaic way to learn it- it is pretty “learn as you go” which has its benefits and flaws. What’s nice is that there is an active online community dealing with the same issues on how to code in R, so luckily common issues are resolved and can be found with the right phrasing in a google search.

So what is there left to be done? Some would consider the data page at this stage a tad dull and could use some color and some pizazz. Also, shiny has more options of integrating different types of graphics that haven’t been utilized yet in the current data page. Utilizing maps would be super beneficial for this particular project; people like maps. There also is the question of which graphic is best at presenting the data in an intuitive, easily-digestible, so that also still needs to addressed even further. Nonetheless, the data page has come a long way since it began and it will continue to grow and go through more transformations, all the while maintaining that human context that CST is known for.

— Ricky Rojas, UMM Senior

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