The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the vulnerability of segments of the population to physical, social and economic upheaval. But what factors make certain communities especially vulnerable during this and future crises? And how can policymakers and community groups understand and mitigate these vulnerabilities, while helping communities emerge from such adversity stronger than before?
Researchers in the Center for Economic and Community Development in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, in partnership with Penn State Extension‘s Energy, Business, and Community Vitality Unit, have developed an online tool they hope will facilitate engagement and help community leaders formulate answers to these and other questions.
“Vulnerable Pennsylvanians in the Context of a Pandemic” is a project based on the ArcGIS StoryMap platform. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Agriculture, the site enables the user to click on interactive maps to learn about the prevalence of 12 vulnerability risk factors at the county and, in many cases, census-tract level. Accompanying the maps are narrative text and several questions designed to stimulate thought and discussion.
“As we were thinking about meaningful research we could do to help communities and decision-makers in this pandemic, we thought about vulnerable populations in Pennsylvania,” said Cristy Halerz Schmidt, applied research educator in the Center for Economic and Community Development. “We wanted to identify some of the social and economic factors that could make people more vulnerable to risk, and how these factors might affect their ability to recover from unexpected events.”
The result was a series of interactive maps with data related to conditions that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic. The maps illustrate — and allow users to drill down on — the following vulnerability risk factors: poverty, housing-cost burden, broadband and internet access, race and ethnicity, school enrollment, healthcare coverage, language barriers, disability status, food insecurity, population 65 and over, transportation, and sources of income.
Based on these factors, the researchers developed information and discussion questions to guide thinking about how, why and where the pandemic and resulting disruptions could affect local populations.
“We hope the discussion questions can help community members better understand their neighborhoods or counties as they seek solutions or plan for impacts,” said Schmidt, who pointed out that many of the vulnerability risk factors incorporated in the tool have been the subject of local and national discussion and news coverage as the pandemic’s impact became more clear.