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12 Data Tools to Help Americans Climb the Economic Ladder

The White House’s “Opportunity Project” pushes the pursuit of social mobility “from information to action.”

In a 2014 report, the White House noted the immense potential of information available in large, public datasets to improve people’s lives. But these data are far too complex to use unless they’re filtered, curated, and presented in way that’s easy to grasp. To that end, the White House just kicked off its Opportunity Project, which offers several user-friendly data-based tools to help Americans gain knowledge they need to climb the economic ladder.

“Using this data, we can put transit stops where they’re needed, draw school boundaries more inclusively, invest in long-neglected sidewalks and streets, and ensure that all cities working on fair housing are investing their resources in closing opportunity gaps,” Luke Tate, the special assistant to the president on economic mobility, said at the project’s launch on Monday. “The Opportunity Project is about moving from information to action.”

The project currently offers 12 new tools, put together with the help of private companies and non-profits using federal and local data on jobs, housing, transportation, education, and demographics. Individuals, families, community leaders and organizations, and local governments can use these resources to “improve economic mobility for all Americans,” the White House fact sheet on the initiative says.

Below are some brief descriptions.

Opportunity Score

Seattle-based real estate brokerage Redfin unveiled Opportunity Score. It’s similar to its previous tool, Walk Score, but instead of rating neighborhoods based on how walkable they are, Opportunity Score rates them on proximity to jobs.

The tool is still in development, but the images below show what it could look like when it’s completed. The map on the left shades neighborhoods based on how close they are to jobs that pay at least $40,000 a year. The right side shows housing prices for rent and sale within a 30-minute commute (with and without a car) from these job centers.

Opportunity Tool

Designed by data company PolicyMap, Opportunity Tool helps users pinpoint Philadelphia neighborhoods with one or more desirable characteristics. A person with a housing voucher, for example, can select up to three characteristics—say, a stable housing market, good schools, and low-cost transportation—and the website will isolate the areas (in blue) that contain all three. The user can also add an additional layer of data, showing for example the locations of retail stores that accept food stamps and community health centers.

Transit Analyst

This tool, created by the GIS app development company Azavea, shows transit access in relation to “community assets,” such as day care, health care, recreation centers, locations for the Head Start early childhood education program, playgrounds, and grocery stores in Philadelphia.

Community organizations and concerned citizens can use this information to ask the city to provide transit options in underserved areas, or try to bring these assets to areas where they’re absent.

Invest in the Future

Created by real estate company Zillow, Invest in the Future is a mapping tool that shades Baltimore neighborhoods on the basis of three factors: opportunity (measured in access to good schools and jobs, and low crime), development potential, overall affordability (measured in terms of total cost of living).

How Affordable Is Opportunity?, a project at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, created the How Affordable Is Opportunity? tool to compare the costs (measured in terms of housing and transportation) to the benefits (educational, health, and economic) of neighborhoods for children of different races and ethnicities.

Here’s the example of Boston, where the tool finds that half of the city’s black children live in areas where costs outweigh opportunities (top), whereas most white kids live in areas where the opposite is true (bottom).

Location Opportunity Footprint

Data company Community Commons unveiled Location Opportunity Footprint, which shows the areas in a city where jobs, good schools, and affordability are all present (in red), as well as areas where only one (pink), or two (orange) of those elements exist. The tool aims to helps community leaders build the case for why their neighborhood deserves more investment.

Measure of America, a non-profit initiative of the Social Science Research Council, created this map of New York City, showing more than 300 indicators of health, housing, demographics, and economics; via the website:

It is a tool people who are dedicated to a city in which "everyone counts" can use to craft effective solutions, target policies and services, advocate for change, and hold elected officials accountable for human progress.

Opportunity Badge

In collaboration with Zillow, the school rating site GreatSchools released the prototype of an app called Opportunity Badge, which compares schools by breaking down performance by race and income of students.

National Equity Atlas

National Equity Atlas, created by research and advocacy organization PolicyLink, helps “track, measure, and make the case for inclusive growth in America’s regions, and states, and nationwide.” The aim of this project is to illustrate economic and health inequalities by gender and race in the 100 largest cities in America. Here are some graphs of population data from New York City included in the atlas.


This app, which is still in beta form, will provide a “360 degree view of how access to opportunity is being experienced,” said Antwi Akom, who presented the app at the White House launch. Its “groundtruthing” feature lets locals correct street-level data on neighborhood amenities such as grocery stores and health centers.

Affordable Housing Finder

Esri’s new tool makes data on affordable housing, jobs, and educational opportunities easily accessible to individuals, planners, and developers.

Open Data Network

Tech start-up Socrata created this tool to compare city-, county-, and metro area-level economic and demographic data.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.