To answer this question, the immigration-focused research and advocacy organization New American Economy (NAE) created a system for assessing the strength of city policies and local economic indicators to rank the 100 largest cities in America on how well they integrate immigrants, both civically and economically. This information is available on a beautifully designed website that enables users to compare how two cities stack up against each other and dig into individual cities through profile pages.
The project, called the Cities Index, is the winner of the Data Design category for Fast Company‘s 2019 Innovation by Design Awards, in part because it was able to make a complex dataset easy to understand while highlighting a vitally important issue in politics right now.
“Early iterations were something that might look like the census, with drop-downs and filters, and a big big tangle of information and functionality,” says Li Lai, the creative director at NAE who designed the index. Instead, she visualized how each city ranks on a single line that breaks out its policy score, socioeconomic score, and overall score. Each element of the site is interactive, enabling you to dig as deep into the data as you want. For policy makers, that might mean really understanding how their city stacks up to another, similar city; and for immigrants, it might mean looking at all the cities in a particular region to understand what might be the best place to move.
But while Lai says that making the data easy to navigate was vital to the project’s success, so was putting stories to the data. “We wanted to hammer home the idea that immigrants aren’t a bad, horrible thing. One of the ways we can communicate that best is through stories and faces,” she says. “Right underneath the index, we immediately wanted to put a face to these immigrants.”
Still, the data is the hero of the project. When the index launched a year ago, it crowned the top 10 cities that best support and integrate immigrants. Newark, New Jersey, took the top spot, followed by Baltimore; New York; Chula Vista, California; San Francisco; Philadelphia; San Jose, California; Chicago; Fremont, California; and Detroit. Those results may not be much of a surprise, but the goal isn’t just to highlight the strength of cities that have focused on immigration for many years. Instead, it’s intended to help policy makers learn more about what they can do to better support immigrants.
“You always think of New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami as longtime immigrant hubs,” says Andrew Lim, NAE’s head of research. “But increasingly, immigration is touching cities all across the country. It’s hard for cities who don’t have this history of immigration to know how to compare themselves or [learn] what cities in their peer groups are doing.”
Lim says the most popular element since September 2018 has been the city-comparison tool, followed by individual city pages. The NAE team has found that even cities with long histories of immigration have used the tool to assess possible weak points.
NAE also found somewhat unexpected trends that can help cities think about how to strategize going forward. For instance, larger immigrant hubs tend to have very supportive policies for immigrants. But at the same time, in cities like New York, the socioeconomic factors aren’t as promising because of overall affordability and housing quality. Meanwhile, smaller up-and-coming cities like Greensboro, North Carolina, have weaker policies but strong socioeconomic factors because there are more job opportunities, and the cost of living is lower.
NAE is in the process of updating the index; a new version will be released this fall. Lim hopes to use the index’s data to provide evidence that supporting immigrants can help a city economically. “For the first year, it’s a benchmark: This is where it stands,” he says. “We hope cities that have good policies show improvement in socioeconomic score. . . . We want our data to really influence and inform policy.”