HUD seeks 'data-driven' approach to grants

Tuesday - 5/8/2012, 5:44pm EDT

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has unveiled a series of new online tools designed to streamline and modernize the way local communities apply for HUD grants.

HUD administers a number of grant programs, including for low-income housing and other development projects, under its Consolidated Plan program. However, the paper-based, time-consuming application process was stuck in the last decade.

The eCon Planning Suite is a set of data and mapping technologies released to the 1,200 local communities that vie for HUD block grants, as well as to the public at large.

"We're turning the page on the past," said HUD Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development Mercedes Marquez in a conference call with reporters. "We're going from a process that had insufficient data, insufficient tools to analyze that data, to one that offers a wealth of online housing and demographic data that will make it vastly easier and cheaper for communities to access."

'Data-driven' approach

The new eCon suite includes an expanded database, a new mapping tool, which contains data at the Census tract level, one of the most granular measures available, and a searchable electronic template for submitting grants.

Beginning Nov. 15, all Consolidated Plan applications must be submitted using the new template.

The suite offers a "data-driven, place-based," approach to community planning, which HUD officials said could help better "target" federal dollars to where they're most needed. And the agency estimates its standardized approach could save local communities as much as 65,000 staff hours each year

The data is also being made freely available for public consumption.

"Imagine — anyone can log on to our new mapping tool ... and see precisely where the need is in their community, where the investments have been made and be more informed when they attempt to argue for their vision of where federal tax dollars ought to be targeted," Marquez said. "This is a democracy in data."

A team of HUD employees both at headquarters and in the field designed the new tools. The agency then partnered with a contractor to implement HUD's design.

Marquez estimated the cost of the entire project, including contracting costs, at about $2 million.

"What we think is very important ... is we think this will save money over time," she said, explaining the new tools would shave off time spent on back-office operations, such as inputting reports.

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