Business use census to map growth PLAYING BY THE NUMBER


By the end of this year, officials at Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. hope to have up and running a cutting-edge computer system called Loadsite.

With its color monitor and mapping capabilities, Loadsite will be able to predict where Maryland residents are likely to live, how large their houses will be, how many shopping centers they will have nearby and the kind of transportation system they are likely to use. BG&E; hopes the information will enhance its corporate planning capabilities by being able to predict areas where the company can expect a growing demand for gas and electric service.

But before Loadsite can go on line, it must first get a heavy infusion from one of the major sources of statistical information available anywhere -- the U.S. Census.

Using the census is a time-honored tradition in business; BG&E; has used it for decades. But not all businesses realize what data is available or how to use it. Smaller companies in particular may need assistance.

For example, at BG&E;, Brent Dorsey, supervisor for area planning, said Loadsite will allow analysts to eliminate judgment calls and guess work when it comes to predicting growth.

"Right now, we have a fairly decent handle on what growth is going to do two or three years into the horizon," he said. "But beyond that it's sheer speculation. This will allow more than one analyst to come down, look at a set of figures and come up with the same results."

In the grocery business Food Lion, the Salisbury, N.C.-based supermarket chain, will use the census data it recently requested from the Maryland Office of Planning to decide whether to add to the six stores already in the state, said Michael Mozingo, a spokesman for the chain.

"It helps to get ahead of growth a little bit," Mozingo said. "That way we can get into the real estate market before pressures force prices up. We have stores that people thought were on the edges of the wilderness, but are now in the middle of fairly substantial developments."

A Fairfax, Va.-based engineering firm, Dewberry and Davis, uses census data to assist its development clients in site selection, feasibility studies, transportation analysis, and infrastructure design, to name a few. Again, the emphasis is on tracking growth areas, said Cindy Taylor-Willis, a company spokeswoman.

For newspapers the emphasis in on circulation, advertising and editorial coverage. For instance, the Baltimore Sun uses the census to plan its circulation drives, identify opportunities for advertisers and plan its editorial coverage.

There are several sources for U.S. Census data, including the U.S. Census Bureau, the Maryland Office of Planning's State Data Center and the Small Business Development Center under the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development.

Other sources include state libraries and regional and local planning agencies.

This year, the U.S. Census Bureau is taking access to census data a step further by making it available on compact disk. Each CD-ROM, which stands for compact disk-read only memory, will hold up to 1,500 times more data than the standard flexible diskettes, also known as floppy disks.

A CD-ROM disk can sell for approximately $150, and all of Maryland's census data will fit on about six disks.

Floppy disks, which sell for approximately $25, will still be available, as well as computer tapes, microfiche and printed reports.

Michel Lettre, assistant director of the state Office of Planning, // said that because CD-ROM holds more information on one disk, it's likely to replace the other methods of recording data, especially for such groups as reference librarians and large corporations.

Another advance that should improve the use of the census by the business community is the TIGER System.

TIGER, or Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing, will allow census users to create maps that link census data to specific geographical areas.

Officials concede that at first large corporations will be the main users of the new technology. In time, however, smaller companies should come aboard.

"Big companies systematically use the census," said Lettre "What I think is possible now, because of the personal computer, that smaller companies are in a better position to use the data. For that reason, they should begin thinking about it."

One of the hurdles to be overcome by small businesses is the notion that using the census is too complicated, an infliction that most often strikes the small business entrepreneur.

Lettre said many companies probably use census data already but aren't aware of it. Consultant groups in particular will mix census data with their own research and repackage it to tailor a firm's needs.

But a consultancy is not always necessary and Lettre said his office often gets calls from dentists and veterinarians in search of the perfect start-up or expansion location.

In order to get the right information, Lettre advises callers to consider two things.

The first is knowing the kind of information you want from the census and asking just for that.

The census can reveal such things about a community as its population, number of households, racial breakdown, income of residents, age of residents, number of cars, and the number of bathrooms per house. The list is almost endless.

The other consideration is geographical area. "The question is, 'How much geographical area do I need to cover?' " said Lettre. "Is it just the county level or is it something larger?"

But answers to some of those questions will have to wait.

While statewide population figures and the data to be used for political redistricting are available, it will be fall before census officials release a statewide accounting of residents by such things as age, living arrangement and marital status. The data released at that time will also include details on the number of people who own their homes, who rent, live in institutions or are homeless.

By 1992, census officials will release figures on poverty, income and occupation.

It's this sociological data that can be the most useful to businesses, Lettre said.

BG&E;'s Dorsey calls the U.S. Census "the ultimate source," and while Loadsite could be developed without using census data, the system would fall far short of what BG&E; hopes to accomplish.

"The census data gives you a lot more information that can help predict where growth is going to occur," Dorsey said. "It can give you demographic data that is invaluable for planning purposes."

American Demographics, a monthly publication backed by Dow Jones & Company Inc., not only utilizes the census in its articles on market place trends, it also is a source of useful census data for those in the business community.

A recent article, "The Legacy of the 1980s," details trends in smaller, less traditional families, the gap in income between those with and without a college education, the burgeoning growth of suburbia and the growing ethnic and racial diversity in the U.S.

Tom Exter, who wrote the article and helps edit the magazine, said American Demographics began projecting the results of the 1990 Census over a year ago, when no data was available.

Such predictions are made by taking into account the 1980 Census results and the myriad of polls and demographic studies that were done by government agencies and marketing groups throughout the decade.

Not only does the magazine use census data in its editorial sections, its advertisers are either companies that decipher the census for business clients or sell computers specially designed to handle the technological advances offered by the Census Bureau.

"The 1980s has seen a virtual explosion in the use of census data, partly because its so relevant and partly because the desktop computer has made it so much more available to everyone," said Exter.

Soources of census date

Individuals or busineses wishing to obtain census data should contact of of these sources:

*U.S. Bureau of the Census

Customer Service

Data User Services Division

Bureau of the Census

Washington, D.C. 20233

To obtain information by phone, call (301) 763-4100.

To get scheduling information for seminars and workshops, call:

The Data User Training Staff at (301) 763-1510

*Maryland Office of Planning, State Data Center

301 W. Preston St., Room 1101

Baltimore, Md. 21201

' (301) 225-4450 *Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development

To contact the Data Center, call (301) 333-6953.

To contact the Small Business Development Center, call (301 333-6996.

To write either agency, specify which agency and addres envelope to:

Department of Economic and Employment Development

217 E. Redwood St.

Baltimore, Md. 21202

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