Should a school district close an elementary school with shrinking enrollment, or will student numbers rebound in the coming years? What’s the outlook for a rural town with a rapidly aging workforce? Can a funeral home expect to be more or less busy over the next decade? How might climate change affect migration?
On the third floor of Agricultural Hall, the researchers in the Applied Population Laboratory (APL) puzzle over these questions and much more. As skilled forecasters, problem solvers, and data facilitators, they deftly wield numbers, graphs, and maps to help the public better understand the shifting sands of people and place.
Then there’s that word: applied. This knowledge is used to make vital decisions in communities across Wisconsin and the nation. APL’s nine researchers and outreach professionals field hundreds of requests each year from diverse sources: concerned citizens searching for information to share with their county boards; local and state government officials hoping to predict community needs; staffers from nonprofits looking to hone their programs; and journalists who want objective analysis of the latest population trends.
“Those connections set us apart,” says David Long, APL’s associate director. “We’re trying to help people answer questions and solve problems that have a real, tangible impact.”
APL is nationally known for its population estimates and projections program — what director Katherine Curtis refers to as the “meat and potatoes of applied research” — as well as other areas ranging from health geography to spatial analysis.
“What makes me excited to get up and come to work every day is that we have this history of fundamental, building-block demography, which is foundational and continues to be very necessary and important to our stakeholders,” notes Curtis, a professor of community and environmental sociology at CALS and a demographic specialist with the UW–Madison Division of Extension. “Then we have this complex spatial overlay, we have emerging areas in health, and we have our institutional relationship as a partner with the U.S. Census Bureau — we’re one of only two Census partners in the state. It’s this valuable combination of area expertise that makes the APL a unique place to be.”
The lab’s team includes experts in demography, geography, statistics, epidemiology, community development, and web design. Despite the wide variety of its projects, there’s a common theme: APL turns social and economic data into information that nonacademics can use to make decisions.
“I think it’s the hope and dream of most researchers to have a very high quality product that can be used for public good, and that’s what we do here,” Curtis says. “I’m proud of our long-standing ability to generate cutting-edge, advanced research and then translate it so that it’s usable by anyone.”
Inspired by the Wisconsin Idea
APL began in the 1960s as a small unit in the Department of Rural Sociology, now known as the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology. The lab initially grew out of the university’s desire to get a better sense of human elements in agricultural landscapes, and it eventually expanded its study to less rural parts of the state as well.
Dan Veroff, an extension demographic specialist with CALS, joined APL more than two decades ago. In Veroff’s early days on campus, the lab was more focused on providing access to demographic data sets that weren’t readily available to people without expertise in statistics or databases. Most data had to be shared via floppy disk or CD-ROM or even via printed volumes.
“Over the time I’ve been here, that has changed enormously because so much data is now available online,” he says. “With web-based data, almost anyone can get the information, and so now our role is to be data facilitators and to do outreach and education on how to use data well and how to understand the strengths and limitations of data from an ever-increasing variety of sources. We’ve also gotten much more sophisticated with how we provide access to information, so instead of just serving up data tables, now we have websites where people can make maps and other visualizations of data in graphic form.”
Decades ago, staff used to color-code paper maps with markers. Now web developer Caitlin Bourbeau designs slick, interactive graphics for the web. “She’s one of our team who makes our data very interactive, engaging, and accessible,” Curtis says.
APL’s focus has also broadened over the years, from its early focus on how national trends affect rural communities to its work today, which spans everything from community development to school enrollment projections. But through the years, APL’s connection to the Wisconsin Idea has remained constant.
“We partner with a lot of people, and what it all has in common is doing work that will improve and enhance people’s well-being,” Curtis says. “How quickly it hits the ground and influences decision-makers varies, but it all has an impact for the populations that we study and serve.”
Curtis thinks of it as “data democracy.” “Part of what we’re trying to do is generate and share knowledge,” she says. “We don’t have a political affiliation or agenda; we’re about the data and packaging the data in a way that it can be used by anyone. It supports the idea of democracy, not in a partisan way but in the true meaning of the word.”
That mission constantly inspires the staff. Malia Jones, a social epidemiologist, moved from the Los Angeles area to join the APL team in 2015.
“I don’t think there’s anything else like it anywhere,” says Jones. “There are other top demography research centers, but they have a more academic focus. What the APL does that’s unique is it connects to the people of Wisconsin and really acts on the Wisconsin Idea through our ties with Extension and the media.”
Social Science for the Public
APL’s work is getting an even wider audience thanks to Jones’s partnership with WisContext, an online multi-media service of Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television that presents social science to the public in an accessible way. The project, which is funded by a three-year grant from UW–Madison’s Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment, includes 48 short pieces on demographic issues affecting Wisconsin, including health, rural life, the electorate, jobs, and aging. The stories are first published on the WisContext website and are often picked up by other news sites.
Leaders at WisContext first approached APL staff about a potential partnership, and Jones jumped at the chance. “A lot of academics don’t interact with the general public, and I think that’s a real missed opportunity,” she says. “I’d like to show people that it’s not hard, it’s not risky — it’s actually fun. And I think it can help break down barriers between the university and the view people have of us as an ivory tower. So I’m really excited about where that work can take us. It has tremendous potential.”
One of the most popular pieces so far is Jones’s series on gerrymandering and the political geography of the state. Her work was cited as part of an amicus brief in the Wisconsin gerrymandering case that recently went before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ultimately decided to return the case to the lower courts.
“Gerrymandering wouldn’t be possible if voters were evenly distributed across the landscape like so many rainbow sprinkles,” Jones notes. “I really got interested in gerrymandering because of the close ties to segregation and historical processes that have led to the suburbs of Milwaukee being very Republican places and the city being a very Democratic-leaning place.”
A Window into a Shifting Wisconsin
Wisconsin’s population continues to change. Aging and increasing racial and ethnic diversity are two factors that have affected many communities statewide.
“One of the things I find fascinating about Wisconsin is that our state is an example of what’s going on in the rest of America,” Curtis says. “Aging and the workforce challenges that come with it, distressed communities, opportunities for growth, opportunities for integration — all of these national conversations are very much a part of what’s unfolding in Wisconsin communities. Our work focuses on these trends, including at the local level.”
APL stays busy with requests from people around the state who want to better understand local population trends. In his role with Extension, Veroff frequently works with communities, local governments, and nonprofits throughout the state to make sure they have the data they need. He fields as many as 500 requests for data every year.
“A lot of communities want to know what’s going to happen with the age structure of the population, and it’s really important on a number of different levels,” Veroff says. “It helps school districts plan for enrollment and facilities, and it helps communities from an economic development perspective plan for the potential labor force.
“The most profound changes are in areas where the population is graying rather rapidly. We’re looking at the impact of that on economic status and well-being, prevailing wages, kinds of employment (and in what industries), income, poverty, and socioeconomic conditions. We’re telling the story of population change and growth in a way that helps communities understand and get a handle on those issues.”
Communities often use the data to bolster grant applications and comprehensive plans, make decisions about resources, and develop new strategies for reaching underserved or underrepresented areas. School districts rely on the data for everything from hiring decisions to facilities planning. This becomes especially important in rural areas, where steady enrollment declines raise questions about the feasibility of keeping schools open, Veroff says.
Sometimes the work is on a neighborhood level. “We can tabulate a lot of administrative data, including police incidents and building inspection data, to identify hot spots that need some attention in terms of resources or programming to get a neighborhood back on its feet,” Long explains.
And some of the data requests or projects are more unusual. Veroff remembers when someone from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources asked for a projection of the deer hunter population. “A lot of it makes me feel like I’m a reference librarian. I get to learn something new every day,” he says.
APL is also gearing up for Census 2020. That means educating people on why it’s important to be counted, defining the boundaries and structures that make sure the Census is hitting all the right places, and preparing for the slew of reports that will be generated after the Census is complete.
Veroff travels to Wisconsin communities to champion the Census. “There are billions of dollars of federal and state funding that are attached to Census counts that will come out after 2020, and new election districts will also be drawn on the basis of population counts,” Veroff explains. “If you have a better count for a community and know where you’ve been and where you’re heading, that’s really important for thinking about growth and decline and how to plan for services.”
A Deeper Look at Public Health
APL’s work could also shape the future of public health in Wisconsin. Jones recently won a large, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to use simulation modeling to study the social dimensions of vaccine refusal, which has led to spikes in preventable childhood diseases, such as measles and pertussis.
“We know that people who don’t want to vaccinate their kids are clustered in certain schools and neighborhoods,” she explains. “We know it matters for outbreak risk because we see outbreaks happening in those places, but there is no good measure of how much that matters.”
Current policy proposals aimed at reversing the public health effects of vaccine refusals don’t take into account clustering. The average vaccine exemption rate in California is 3 percent, but some schools have rates as high as 98 percent. Those schools may need different policies to curb potential outbreaks, Jones notes.
Jones is initially focusing on California, which has the best data on vaccine refusal, but she plans to share her work with Wisconsin policymakers. “Wisconsin is well above the national median for vaccine refusals, so it definitely is an issue here as well,” she says.
Researcher Bill Buckingham also focuses on health geography and recently published an “area of deprivation index,” which helps medical researchers examine the long-term health impact of living in a distressed neighborhood. His work in this area merges spatial information with social and economic data to create a nationwide map of health risks that stem from social disadvantage.
The APL team is excited to get its data-driven insights out of academic journals and into the hands of Wisconsinites who can use them.
“We’re not just doing research for the sake of research or crunching numbers that go into the Twittersphere,” Veroff says. “We’re thinking about how what we’re doing gets used and applied in the lives of the citizens of Wisconsin, how we can make a difference or help those who are on the front lines make a difference. That’s something that we get sparked by every day.”
And while APL remains busy, researchers say they always have time for one more interesting project. “We’re for hire!” Curtis says with a laugh. “We like puzzles, so send us your puzzles, and we’ll find an answer for them.”