ACCRA Newsletter

National Infrastructure for Community Statistics: Purpose and Process

The National Infrastructure for Community Statistics (NICS) is intended to provide direct access to detailed community-level datasets from thousands of local, state, federal, and commercial data sources. Using a nationally available web-based utility, NICS is designed to offer tools with which to usefully analyze an array of publicly available datasets. In particular, NICS is intended to support and enhance the work of local, state, federal, and private data intermediaries and other organizations (e.g., economic development research organizations) that seek to manipulate large datasets from multiple sources. The goal is to make these data sets more readily available for small areas to (1) facilitate greater understanding of community socioeconomic conditions, trends and opportunities; (2) encourage more effective program and investment decisions; improved measurement of program and investment impacts; and (3) support local and national indicators efforts.

In March 2004, a group of people pursuing the development of the next generation of community statistical systems conceived of the idea of NICS as a utility that could support the operations of data intermediaries. As currently conceived, NICS will have three dimensions. First, NICS will serve as a web-based "wholesale" marketplace for thousands of community-level datasets as well as tools for cleaning, integrating, visualizing, and analyzing these data, and creating metadata. NICS would provide its target audience—data intermediaries (serving "retail" users) and other organizations manipulating large datasets—with live access to the original source of each dataset. It should be noted that NICS is intended not to replace current "retail" statistical systems, but rather to support and enhance them.

Second, NICS is designed to guide strategic investments in the research and development of innovative tools that can be made available through NICS. Recent NICS workshops clearly indicate R&D opportunities in tools for visualizing and integrating data, protecting the confidentiality of microdata, and reducing the high labor costs associated with preparing metadata.

Third, NICS will host a Community of Practice (CoP). The CoP, comprised of NICS participants and other interested parties, will help develop NICS tools and innovations through quarterly meetings and web-based dialogues. The CoP also will serve as a means for promoting the creation and sharing of information relevant to NICS users, such as guides to making effective use of NICS and experiences with particular datasets and services.

The Urban Markets Initiative of The Brooking Institution agreed to serve as initial host for NICS and for a CoP to guide the conceptualization and development of NICS. The CoP now has over 150 participants representing governments and nonprofits at all geographic levels and commercial organizations. The CoP first carried out a Concept Phase to determine the basic elements of NICS. It then held four public Learning Phase workshops to explore the desirability and feasibility of NICS. Supported by grants from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, the NICS development process now is in the Initiation Phase (2005-07), which aims to bring NICS to the point of full implementation. In the Implementation Phase, NICS would be spun out of Brookings as an independent, self-sustaining entity.

During the Initiation Phase, the technical and institutional foundation of NICS will be developed so that it may become independent of Brookings. NICS leaders will create a business model and plan and develop a prototype NICS gateway. Future CoP workshops will explore particular challenges faced in the development of NICS, such as the design of incentives to encourage participation in NICS, protecting data confidentiality, and managing intellectual property rights.

Participation by ACCRA members in the NICS CoP is welcome. Interested parties can contact Rebecca Blash, NICS Manager, Urban Markets Initiative, Metropolitan Policy Program, The Brookings Institution at (202) 797-6257 or at