COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on states and U.S. citizens, not only healthwise, but economically. Many states have run the gamut from lockdown to loosening pandemic restrictions to tightening them again (July 22, 2020 data). On any given day, the situation changes.

Government leaders must continually evaluate the economic conditions of their communities. They must make strategic decisions about how to help businesses, which ones should reopen, what part of the workforce should continue to remain remote, how long that should continue, and so forth. But there is a lack of data on which to base these decisions.

Illinois-based Blane Canada, Ltd., an economic development services firm, and the volunteer, grassroots BR|E (business retention/expansion) COVID-19 Response Network envisioned a way to quickly provide that data.

They created a benchmark survey and follow-up questionnaire to measure the level and severity of the impact and to learn the needs of businesses. The carefully selected questions revolve around the workforce, finances, supply chain, and the future.

They would need to gather and deliver this benchmark data, and that would be quite a challenge.

Getting the right technology in place

The COVID-19 Response Network wanted a tool that would allow them to analyze and distribute data on a large scale and free to the public. The group needed a technology partner who would take time understand the problem, ask the right questions, and build a technology solution against a tight timeline.

Eric Canada, CEO of Blane Canada, was confident that Fusion Alliance, his company’s technology partner of two years, would be the right fit.

He asked if Fusion could build a tool for economic developers to learn the impact of the virus on their business communities. Within two weeks, we had a solution and dashboards up and running, available to the public.

Off to a quick start

Our team began by evaluating survey platforms to choose the right one for the task. We conducted proof-of-concept testing to see which platforms met all requirements, and then selected a tool. Next, we determined how to standardize and unify data collection. Then we built the survey, sent it out, and enabled other entities to send the survey, as well. That all happened within five days of being approached.

After that, the focus was on how to display the results. Our team suggested something similar to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus dashboard, and Canada was on board. A dashboard would allow users to see the story in a visual format and interact with the data.

Working against the clock, we built the dashboard and demoed it a few days later to more than 100 organizations in the growing grass-roots volunteer network.

Two days after the survey was sent, the data began pouring in, and it was aggregated and put into the analytics toolset. The group continues to send surveys and follow-up monitoring questionnaires all over the nation, and the dashboard is constantly updated as more results come in.

Some companies have participated and submitted up to four monitoring surveys, providing more data points.

The impact of this data

“This virus will eventually pass, and our communities are going to face a very different Main Street. We’re going to have a lot of empty buildings in shopping centers, so how does the community recover from that? Everyone was paying taxes on a local level. But with less funding from sales taxes and property taxes, that creates significant problems, and that’s where the data can help,” said Canada.

Providing new insights

Most businesses typically have access to their own information and some local data, but they don’t have numbers that provide context, nor a national window into what’s going on or the current level of pain. Using dashboards, they can get a sense of what is going on in other communities of the same size in other areas.

For example, they can use the data to see how they compare to communities in the Midwest or in the rest of Texas or North Carolina. Or maybe they use it to see what life looks like in other states or regions where shelter-in-place restrictions have begun to lift a few weeks ahead of their own state.

Helping shape strategies

The dashboards will be most useful for planning a go-forward strategy. Currently, the majority of users leverage the dashboard data to represent their client companies in community discussions about the state of the local economy, where it is headed, and how and when they can reopen.

Opening new doors

Those lobbying for their local business communities are using the dashboard data to get a foot in the door in planning and strategy meetings with local task forces, business leaders, and higher-level decision makers, such as mayors and even governors.

The value they bring is that they have the metrics needed for planning and conversations about what may happen in terms of lost companies, lost employment, and how that translates into lost economy.

Michigan-based economic developer Lakeshore Advantage said local manufacturers were trying to get a clear vision of the impact of the virus on businesses. After gathering four weeks of data that quantifies the impact of the virus on the local economy, they were able to present it to legislators and the governor to help develop a return-to-work plan and timeline.

Many economic developers report they use the dashboard to directly respond to individual companies who are asking for guidance and insights around the current state of the local economy.

Enabling informed financial contributions

The data is also benefiting philanthropic groups looking to strategically donate money but lacking knowledge of how to direct the funds in a way that will most positively impact the local economy.

One Illinois-based charitable organization, for example, raised $1 million to give out to local businesses, but needed insights into how to distribute that sum. They used the dashboard data to select potential recipients who would have the most impact on the economic viability of the community.

Setting up for future success

The key to the success and expansion of this grassroots organization is getting the word out to have more businesses participate in the survey and make more economic decision makers aware of the existence of this data.

The network has grown to more than 360 members and continues to expand. Members are using their personal networks and personal funds to share out this data for the betterment of communities all over the country as we reconstruct economically. The next step will be to tell this story on a national level.

On an international front, interest has grown organically through word of mouth, with survey results from Mexico, Argentina, Canada, and New Zealand. The UN Economic Commissions for Europe, Latin America/Caribbean, Africa, and South Africa have also received the survey, with plans to distribute it worldwide. Already Australia, France, and Germany have also expressed interest.

Meanwhile, from a technology standpoint, the dashboards are being honed and improved as needs are identified. While the raw data is not yet available for downloading, Eric Canada said that is in the works.

At press time, the surveys keep coming in, with more than 6,000 submissions, which Canada said is already a representative sample. He is eager to hit the 10,000+ mark as awareness expands.

“We are a small client. Fusion Alliance didn't have to pay attention to us or to this special project. But your team responded immediately, throwing support behind us. Fusion is essential to making a difference for our clients and, more importantly, for economic developers and communities across the country and beyond,” Canada reflected.

For now, members of the COVID-19 Response Network continue their hard work, hoping they will one day look back and know that their efforts helped Americans as our country began reconstructing from the economic fallout of this pandemic.