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The Impact of Data

Scott Sternberg

Thoughts from Scott Sternberg, Executive Director, Boulder Economic Council

Considering the recent severe weather plaguing the country, I thought I would draw a comparison between atmospheric observations and economic data. Both represent the traditional Data-to-Information-to-Action-to-Impact line of reasoning. We have used this exact approach to map out recovery initiatives targeted at those industries and businesses that have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the weather world, thousands of atmospheric observations, from the ground to space, are compiled on a routine basis and placed into an archive: The Data. Years of development of mathematical models, trends and intuition are applied to this data to generate a forecast: The Information. This information is then presented to decision makers as fact-based scenarios for short term planning and alerts: The Action. Lastly, the outcome of these actions is highlighted in the responsiveness of the community regarding the protection of life and property: The Impact.

Recent events in Texas illustrate this logic best. The data led to a chilling forecast that predicted a strain on both the transportation and electrical networks. Rolling outages were implemented to maintain the integrity of the infrastructure. As a result, many lined up at local restaurants amidst COVID-19 restrictions as they were literally unable to eat and drink at home. Sometimes, regardless of the quality of the information and the actions, the perturbation to the system is too great making it difficult to appropriately respond.

As December is a time when we often look back on the year, January is our time to project into the future. This past month the Boulder Economic Council (BEC) conducted our annual Economic Forecast: Boulder and Beyond. Through the great work of our partners Dr. Rich Wobbekind and Brian Lewandowski at CU Boulder’s Business Research Division, thousands of demographic and economic data points were compiled, analyzed, and presented. This analysis, with their insightful and experienced commentary, serves as a definitive information package for our economic future. The fundamental question now is: what are we going to do and what difference can we make?

Over the past year the loss of jobs in Leisure and Hospitality has been substantial (60,000+ in Colorado). Moreover, it is predicted that this sector will be slow to fully recover. Given this information, The Boulder Chamber, in conjunction with Boulder County stakeholders, acted and led the effort to establish the 5 Star Certification Program. Certified businesses can now operate one level above the restrictions dictated by the state’s dial system if they commit to comply with higher-level public health protections standards. Going forward, the ability for these businesses to operate at higher occupancies could have a real impact on many establishments: Data-through-Impact logic at play!

Data can also be qualitative in nature. Over the past year the Boulder Chamber has conducted over 50 roundtable discussions cutting across various industry segments, workforce categories and business sectors. If there is one commonality amongst business professionals, it is the overwhelming need to interact with peers. There is no book on how to manage in a pandemic (at least not yet). Therefore, the opportunity to benchmark one’s actions against others has proved to be a valuable source of information that many leaders have used to act, and make an impact, within their own organizations.

Finally, the pandemic’s imposed social distancing and remote working requirements has uniquely impacted Boulder. Before the crisis, approximately 70,000 workers commuted into Boulder daily. With the reality of new remote working and learning strategies, Boulder has experienced a substantial reduction of in-commuters which has negatively impacted the city’s retail sales tax revenue. Due in part to an explosion of digital adoption, it is very likely that the number of remote workers post-pandemic will be higher than previous levels. Moreover, this increased dependence on high-speed, broadband access has split the community across socioeconomic lines creating the so called “digital divide”. Knowing this, we can now consider actions across our infrastructure, transportation networks, housing developments, commercial real estate properties and workforce development programs that best impact the future of Boulder’s economy. I am looking forward to rolling out a series of strategic actions the Boulder Chamber plans to take, through its Boulder Together program, along with the thoughtful responses from our economic vitality partners, industry sectors and local businesses, and the impacts they make!

Here at the BEC we continue to drill data sources and apply logic, reasoning, and models to create insightful information. We present this to stakeholders that are charged with taking action to make positive impacts on our economy, community, and quality of life. In many ways our future depends on one datapoint that relies heavily on the conclusion of the public health crisis: customer and employee confidence. In the meantime, we continually look for creative and innovative solutions to accelerate our economic recovery.