An end to Hack Tyler

Last time I updated this blog I was encouraging everyone to attend the Tyler Mini Maker Faire. If you didn’t hear, it was a huge hit. The 2nd annual faire is coming up in just a couple weeks. You should go! If it goes well there is even an outside chance Tyler might be getting an Innovation Center that will feature a Makerspace.

It was one year ago I wrote that.  Given the long silence, it’s worth calling the Hack Tyler project done. Although I remain as intrigued as ever by Tyler, I’ve moved beyond the “data for data’s sake” approach to understanding the place. In addition, I’m now dividing my time between Tyler and Oakland, CA, so my personal investment in the place has changed tenor somewhat.

I hope people continue to discover this blog and use the information it presents to learn about Tyler. Building it was a tremendous experience that gained me great friends and taught me a tremendous amount about the place. In a curious and unexpected way, writing about Tyler made me care deeply about it. (It also made me, at times, ferociously annoyed.)

Everything I built will stay online, however, the following apps are broken for various reasons and will not be fixed (unless somebody else wants to do it):

The Data page is also likely to be out of date at this point.

All the other maps and apps still work, to the best of my knowledge. Make Tyler Weird is still modestly active, and still one of my favorite things that came out of this endeavor.

To everyone who read—especially those of you who live in Tyler: thank you. Want to chat more? I still eat lunch. Contact information is at the left.

Join us at Tyler Mini Maker Faire on March 23rd!

Hack Tyler will have a table at the first ever Tyler Mini Maker Faire on March 23rd. I’ll be demoing and discussing any and all of the Hack Tyler apps, with a particular focus on the fact that projects like the ones on this site are something anyone (with enough tenacity) can learn to do.

Drop by, chat with me about Tyler, suggest new projects and ask any questions you have. If you’re lucky you’ll get to see first ever Hack Tyler hardware project, which I’ve been putting together over the last week.

Notes and happenings

I suppose it is obvious at this point that Hack Tyler has been on the back burner for some time now. In September I started working as a News Applications Developer for NPR and around the same time I began a period of near-constant travel that lasted almost three months. The relative inactivity is likely to remain the norm for the foreseeable future.

That being said, there are several interesting things happening in Tyler I wanted to make note of.

A new urban farmer’s market

A group of Tylerites loosely organized around the Facebook group Fresh.Local.Tasty. are working to bring a new community farmer’s market to North Tyler. As someone perpetually depressed by the fresh food options in Tyler, I sure would love to see this happen.

Tyler Mini Maker Faire

The Discovery Science Place will be hosting a Mini Maker Faire in Tyler on March 23rd. I approach the DSP with a healthy skepticism due to the annual banquet they host for the pseudo-science organization Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy, but this event looks neat.

Actor’s Preperatory Exchange & Theatre 20

Theatre 20 is opening in a truly bizarre and wonderful spot in Tyler. It’s unassumingly tucked away in the basement of the Energy Building on Front Street. I had the good fortune to get a tour of the location before it was renovated and it should be a really awesome space. They’ll be offering acting classes.

Read more about the project at the Tyler Morning Telegraph.

ProPublica’s nursing home’s project

ProPublica continues to do amazing coverage of nursing homes around the country. As I usually do when I see a news project with national scope, I searched for Tyler. What I found is that locally we have nursing homes that have had some of the most serious safety infractions possible. Azalea Place seems have the most dramatic safety record.

Let’s just do nothing then

Downtown Tyler

Downtown Tyler, seen through the lens of JoshEwwAhh. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I’ve tried to make a habit of keeping easily-politicized opinions away from this blog. For this post I am throwing that all out the window to tell you what I think. Why? In a word: frustration. There is a wonderful potential in Tyler. It has the raw elements of a great, little city, but this potential is being squandered by the striking rigidity of local politics. In particular I refer to the new city budget, a document so visionless and dull that City Manager Mark McDaniel has coined the euphemism “maintenance budget” to describe it. This is emblematic of a systemic horror of public investment that borders on the pathological. Tyler sees the future coming, but is doing nothing about it.

Plans

The Tyler 21 plan lays out a vision of the city that caters to changing demographics and desires. It foresees a revitalized downtown, additional green spaces and other amenities designed to lure the “knowledge workers” of the 21st century. This is, of course, how urban economies grow. Professional services expand. Manufacturing falls apart. And, in Tyler, the medical industry takes over. And yet despite these obvious symptoms of change, the city has steadfastly failed to cater to the workers they seek to attract. To quote from the plan:

The knowledge workers are mobile and choose where they want to live based on urban amenities and walkable environments, cultural attractions, and access to outdoor recreation and attractive natural environments. Tyler’s development model over the last generation, characterized by suburban-style residential subdivisions, commercial strip development, disinvestment in the downtown core, and dispersal of cultural destinations, is not what the knowledge workers have increasingly been choosing. (p. 84)

Moreover, according to Tyler 21, “About one-third of the [existing] population of the Tyler region is open to urban-style housing options.” It goes on to outline a vision for a city that could support those options. It is a good plan—thoughtful, bold and with a eye on the horizon. It sets an impressive target for the city.

Problems

Yet the good intentions of Tyler 21 are curious given the startling lack of evidence that anything in it will ever get done. Why? Because of the local political machine’s insistence that all government is intrinsically wasteful. So utterly enamored are they of this idea that a presentation on city’s new budget includes four slides documenting how much money they are not spending, before it even gets around to summarizing the city’s revenue. This year Tyler is projected to raise only $14.1 million in property tax revenue from its 96,900 residents. To put that in perspective, my provincial hometown of Scottsbluff, Nebraska will raise more than $9.5 million from only 15,039 residents—more than 4 times as much per person*. Needless to say Scottsbluff isn’t exactly a bastion of liberal political sentiment. The disparity is actually worse than it sounds, because these funds are also effectively the supporting the much larger Tyler Metropolitan Area, a region of over 200,000 people, the majority of whom work, shop and drive in Tyler.

The new city budget as a whole accounts for only $596.49 per resident—from which the city must provide police officers, firemen, courts, utilities, park services, smooth roads, properly timed stoplights, zoning, a library and—lest we forget—the implementation of Tyler 21. The current budget allocates just $30,000 for Tyler 21 in the new fiscal year. This money won’t actually be used to implement anything, mind you. Instead it is earmarked for updating the plan itself. Other highlights of the budget include $0 for library projects, a paltry $65,000 for park improvements (roughly the price of one piece of Playground equipment) and the complete elimination of support for the local animal shelter. “Maintenance budget,” indeed.

(The cherry on top: property taxes will be reduced in this year’s budget.)

The notion that any city can progress without investment is ludicrous. It is not only socially unjust to the majority of residents who can’t manufacture their own luck, but it isn’t even sound by the principles of those who would argue government should be run like a business. After all, what business survives without capital investment? Would Brookshire’s, Trane and Suddenlink be the poster children of Tyler industry if they had never invested in equipment or facilities? Could they be expected to compete with only volunteer executives? (Tyler’s Mayor and City Council are volunteer positions.) No, of course not. Are low tax rates good for business? Undoubtedly. But so are good infrastructure, high-quality schools and a diverse community. These are the things that separate a successful city from one that simply survives.

Now is precisely the time that Tyler ought to invest in its future. Tyler’s demographics are shifting. The city should be building new parks and bike paths, rebuilding downtown and creating an environment amenable both to jobs that pay good salaries and to individuals that want to work them. We should capitalize on the population of young people attending college here and provide some incentive for them to think of Tyler as more than merely an layover on their way somewhere else. Catering to rich retirees is not a path to affluence, but rather to irrelevance.

We should also stop giving massive tax breaks to corporations that bring in zero-education jobs no one has ever aspired to. It’s not these jobs aren’t useful, but we shouldn’t be chasing after businesses so obsessed with saving money they are locating their business based on trivial tax incentives. If this is how they make decisions, how well can they possibly treat their employees? More to the point, Tyler’s low cost of living encourages businesses to pay poorly, which reduces social mobility and leaves a lot of people stuck. (My friends who work in local software businesses get paid a pittance compared to what they would make almost anywhere else in the country.) On the other hand, if Tyler were a place where qualified, educated workers wanted to live the businesses to employ them would want to be here—tax breaks or no. As long as our yardstick for success is being #53 on Forbes’ list of The Best Small Places for Business and Careers we are unlikely to progress.

Tyler is known for its roses and its low cost of living. Those things are nice, but increasingly it will also be known for its mediocre school system, incomplete infrastructure, racial segregation and frequent pedestrian fatalities. (I’ve just contributed to it. See how easy that was?) These are the problems of a city, not a hamlet. They need to be treated as urban problems, not by dispensing with the moral responsibility of local government in order to appease corporate interest. Local business isn’t going to build streets—at least not ones that go to anyone’s house.

Solutions (sort of)

Now is the time for Tyler to invest in its future by living up to the Tyler 21 plan (and the draft Midtown plan). Raise the tax rate to a reasonable level and spend some money. This doesn’t presuppose being stupid and getting millions of dollars in debt. We need to be smart and build a city that can hold the future, rather than just the retirees of the past.

Public hearings on the new Tyler budget are tomorrow at 9 AM. I, like everyone else, will be at work. 

* Budget estimates are based on the 2010 census populations for Tyler and Scottsbluff and their published budgets.

Hack Tyler has a posse

It has been almost a year since I made a big fuss about moving to Tyler and started on this crazy project of contorting the place to me and myself to it. This project has been fantastically successful. Sure, I’ve lost a few battles, but I’ve also genuinely come to enjoy living here. This is in large part due to the community of engaged and thoughtful people who’ve sought me out since I arrived. It has been a deeply rewarding experience to connect with so many other folks who are passionate about making Tyler a more inclusive and sustainable community.

In short, good friends make all the difference.

With that in mind, I’m happy to announce that Hack Tyler is no longer just me. An incredible group of local hackers and muckrackers (née engaged citizens) have banded together to think bigger and hack smarter. My friends here in Tyler wanted to pitch in and they have—to great effect.

Today I’m thrilled to announce two new Hack Tyler projects:

Tyler Public Art »

TPA is a visual index of all public art on display in Tyler. It has a map. It has photos. It works on tablets and phones. You can take it with you and tour the city. We included graffiti because we’re contrary like that.

This project benefited tremendously from the contributions of designer Justin Edwards and programmer Joseph McCullough.

Know of art we haven’t found yet? Let us know!

(Want it for your city? It’s all client-side and open source.)

Make Tyler Weird »

MTW is a user-created directory of everything that makes Tyler unique. Inspired by the Keep Portland Weird and Keep Austin Weird movements we aim to raise awareness of local businesses and culture and also to make it possible for those with niche interests (like programming) to find other locals with similar interests. It is based on the LocalWiki platform, which has been used to great effect in Davis, CA and, more recently, nearby Denton, TX.

MTW also provides a platform for us to centralize our efforts around the weird local issues we care about that don’t get enough attention, such as recycling, poverty and safe, alternative transportation.

Many members of Hack Tyler have pitched in to start filling it with information, but I’d like to make special mention of Justin Edwards, who came up with the idea, and contributors Justin Reese and Jacob Lindsey who have added excellent content.

Anyone can contribute to Make Tyler Weird!

Get involved!

If you are citizen of Tyler who cares about the issues I write about on this blog (or others that I don’t write about, but you think I should), please join us! Although this group is very strongly focused on technology we want to hear from a variety of perspectives and are especially interested in engaging with local charities and non-profits. I would also like to make a special plea to any women or representatives of Tyler’s minority communities to join in the conversation. This is a community where you can feel safe and your opinions will be respected.

Our mailing list is here. Please, lend us your expertise.

The mission of Hack Tyler has changed somewhat. I’m less concerned with government these days and more concerned with issues and culture, but I am no less excited. If anything I’m even more determined than I was one year ago.

Keep your hats on Tyler, we have only begun to hack.


Are you a student in Tyler? I’ll be speaking to the UT Tyler chapter of the ACM on Friday, April 27th at noon. Location TBA.

The wealth of property

Note: This post was revised at 10:30 AM to remove vacant lots from the data and map. All calculations have been adjusted. (Thanks, Justin!)

Property tax records are a frequently overlooked resource for regional demographic data. In particular, they can provide a window into distribution of wealth, something census data does a poor job of illustrating. In Tyler, as in most places, property tax data is publicly accessible. Unfortunately, it’s not easily available in bulk. I’ve long put off writing a script to extract the data from the Smith County Appraisal District (SCAD) website, despite knowing it would be a rich source of information. So I was particularly pleased when a friend of a friend at Tyler-based TaxNetUSA offered me the complete Smith County property tax rolls, already cleaned and ready to be analyzed. Thanks to this new, rich data source I can make things like this:

Tyler home values, 2011

I find this map fascinating for any number of reasons, but first a few caveats about how it was created. It might seem that this would be as simple as selecting properties labeled residential and putting them on a map. In fact, there is no single way of identifying a property as being residential. In order to estimate what constitutes a “home” I used the following process:

  • Connect each property tax record to the tax parcel documenting its shape (the parcel shapes are what is actually mapped).
  • Connect each tax parcel to the zoning area it is in.
  • Filter out all tax parcels not in a residential zone.
  • Filter out all parcels with zero “improvement value” to remove vacant lots.

Unfortunately, for reasons that are unclear, this doesn’t come even close to filtering out all businesses, churches, state lands, etc. (Ostensibly the zoning in Tyler is a total mess.) To accomplish this I had to go over the data and generate a long list of rules about what not to include, based on the name of the “owner”. So, for instance, I got rid of anything that ended in “LLC”, “PENTECOSTAL” or “FOUNDATION”. After a few hours of this, I had a set of properties that I believe more or less correspond to individually and jointly owned homes. It should not be believed to be perfect, but any errors should be evenly distributed throughout the dataset.

My first intuition was to shade this map by value increments of $100,000. This had the intriguing property of very clearly illustrating the “one percent” of Occupy Wall Street fame. They have homes valued at more than $500,000 and mostly live around Hollytree Country Club. However, this approach also lumped more than half of all properties (52.5%) into the “less than $100,000” group. When I observed that the median value was only $95,572 it became clear that this approach was obscuring a lot of what was interesting about the underlying data.

Instead of equal intervals, I’ve used quantiles to the represent the data, that is, five groups where each group accounts for 20% of the properties. Thus each color corresponds to approximately 4,723 of the 23,616 mapped properties. This has the much more valuable effect of illustrating where there is poverty (the 20% of homes worth less than $45,841) and prosperity (homes worth more than $173,640).

Even more interestingly, this approach seems to adequately distinguish the lower-middle, middle, and upper-middle classes relative to Tyler norms, though one should bear in mind that apartments are not illustrated at all. As low-income groups tend to cluster in multi-family units one should imagine that population being significantly larger than the map illustrates. Despite these limitations, I feel that this approach adequately demonstrates the reality of the economic divisions in the city. (I’m pleased to note that my neighborhood, Charnwood, is, as in all things, a melting pot.)

I didn’t create this map to invoke the specter of class warfare, though frankly I don’t think we can be reminded too frequently that many Americans can’t afford to eat properly. I did create it in order to demonstrate how geographically and racially aggravated these class divisions are. Tyler north of Front Street is poor and Hispanic. (See the race map, I made last year.) South of Front Street is wealthy and white. The predominantly African American communities in west and northwest Tyler are marginally better off than the Hispanic areas. However, North Tyler is also growing much more rapidly, thanks to a 55% expansion in Tyler’s Hispanic population over the last ten years. These demographic forces are going to have an unprecedented impact on the city during the next decade.

Hopefully this map will encourage individuals to carefully consider Tyler’s class stratification, especially as it impacts efforts to support minority communities, revitalize downtown and prevent economic stagnation. I’ve only just scratched the surface of this property tax data and I expect to do several more blog posts using it. In the meantime, here are a few more facts about the data presented on this map.

  • Total value of all properties on the map: $2,942,661,243.
  • City property taxes collected on this amount: $6,147,219.
  • Total land area: 63438 square acres.
  • Median year of home construction: 1960.

Thanks for reading.

What I will not be doing next

In January I had an opportunity to turn Hack Tyler into something more than it is today. It was a chance to elevate the effort to a higher profile, pursue larger projects and even gain some modest financial support. I planned extensively for this chance, wrote a careful announcement letter to the city council and solicited advice from many friends and colleagues.

I have decided not to pursue this opportunity.

Though my decisions are beholden to no one (more on this in a moment), I feel I should justify this choice, in part because I believe if I had pursued this opportunity the scope and impact of Hack Tyler projects could have expanded tremendously. In short, I’m walking away from the chance to do more good.

Hack Tyler, is andI intendalways will be, a rabbit hole for me. It is an opportunity to experiment and scratch my own itches. When I built Tyler Transit I knew it could be useful to many people, but that was not why I did it. I did it because I wanted it. I was my own user.

Were I to formalize Hack Tyler it would cease to become an outlet for my creative whims and intuitions. I would be making things because they are needed and not because I am passionate about them. This is a often a minor distinction, but the cumulative result is that the effort would begin to seem more and more like work until eventually I lost motivation.

I know this, because it’s already happened. I’ve forced myself to work on things, not because I was excited about them, but rather because I believe they are what Tyler needs most. This has dulled my interest in them and ultimately caused me to put them aside. This is entirely my own fault. In my enthusiasm for a good idea I began to view myself as a revolutionary instead of a tinkerer. I was wrong and the result is that I ceased to be personally invested in the projects. This isn’t good for me and it would almost certainly be fatal to any organized entity I might endeavor to form around the project.

I want to create great things for Tyler and I hope others are equally eager about the possibilities. However, I won’t turn Hack Tyler into something that I must manage. If I am to be excited about it, it must be for my own reasons—the real ones, not the ones I made up.

I can’t tell you how frequently I will be updating the site in the future, but I can guarantee that when I do it will be because I’m excited to share something I’m passionate about, not just something I believe is objectively important.

As an example, today I’d like to share with you a new, albeit minor, project:

2010 Census: Age diversity in Smith County

This is a map I made of Smith County age demographics using census data. It is also an experiment in designing a dot-density map to be color-blind friendly.

In addition, this map was a response to interest from Glory Development Corporation, a Tyler non-profit dedicated to building and rehabilitating affordable housing. This map was built to help them identify areas where there are concentrations of elderly residents. (I also made a separate, less busy version more specific to their needs.) They have big dreams and good ideas and I’m helping them because their passions overlap with mine. That, I believe, is where I am at my best and it is where I shall engage my efforts from this point on.

Tyler Sirens: a visual police scanner

Launch Tyler Sirens »

Tyler Sirens presents nearly-up-to-the-minute incident report data from Tyler Police Department. However, if it were just that it wouldn’t be much different from the Tyler Morning Telegraph’s Police Call Map. What Tyler Sirens adds is real-time updates. If you leave your window open and a report comes in (or is updated), the map will instantly update and display the newest information. It’s less like looking at a map of what’s happened and more like listening to a police scanner. (For the geeks out there, this is built on Pusher. Oh, and there is an API. And, of course, it’s open source.)

This project came about because of my fascination with a singular set of data made available by the Tyler Police Department:

The Active Call List

This dataset is updated every two minutes and lists, with important exceptions, all the incident reports that come in to the police. Censored from the list are certain sensitive crimes, such as Sexual Assault and Suicide. Violent crimes are delayed up to fifteen minutes so police can secure the scene. There is a FAQ that describes all the limitations of the data.

While its important to keep what is left out in mind, it’s also worth recognizing just how rare a dataset like this is. In many places—including my favorite metropolis, Chicago—the idea of getting real-time data from the police is almost unthinkable. (Though I have discovered that a few other cities, including Memphis and Colorado Springs, have similar systems.) So how did this forward-thinking open data innovation come about in east Texas?

It turns out the ACL was a capstone project of four students at the University of Texas at Tyler Computer Science department.  They worked with the police department’s IT staff to implement the system. I think it goes without saying that this is a pretty remarkable collaboration between the university and the local government. And though the final product has certain… shall we say, idiosyncrasies (the RSS is completely invalid) it’s an impressive accomplishment and a fascinating source of useful public information.

There is much more to be done with this data. In fact, Tyler Sirens is more of a demo than a useful application. This information, with more work and, perhaps, some improvements from the Tyler Police Department, could power real-time traffic alerts, emergency notifications or give citizens an unprecedented window into what is happening in their neighborhoods. (While testing I spotted what appeared to be a rash of automobile burglaries around Tyler Junior College.) These initial reports could even be correlated with the Police Public Information Reports for accountability and responsiveness analysis. It’s a tantalizing example of open data without pretension. I love to think about what could be built if we knew what the all of our government was doing every two minutes.

My feet on Tyler’s sidewalks (map!)

I am in Tyler. While waiting I passed five months, wrote eight blog posts, and hacked four apps. Now I’m in a new place with new responsibilities and expectations, but most importantly, I’m back with the kid in this picture:

Sometime soon I will reflect on my impressions of Tyler, but first I want to celebrate the change by writing about something that was central to my original Hack Tyler post:

Public transportation. I’ll have access to a car, but I’m going to do my best to live without being a consumer of gasoline, just as I did in Chicago.

Several people insisted I couldn’t live without a car in Tylerand they were absolutely right. When I landed at Tyler Pounds Regional Airport I hadn’t driven a car in four months. Since I landed, I’ve driven nearly every day. (Mostly ferrying my son to school and various activities.)

However, I’ve also done something else since I arrived here: I’ve walked.

I very carefully selected the house I’m rentingan eccentric, hundred-year-old single-story in the Charnwood neighborhood—so that I can get to as many things as possible without driving. It’s within a mile of:

Putting so much thought into where I would live has made me acutely aware of Tyler’s pedestrian infrastructure. I’ll (hopefully) forestall any accusations of carpetbagging by noting that I also spent the summer reading all 490 pages of the Tyler 21 Comprehensive Municipal Plan as well as the additional 52 pages of the 2010 Pedestrian Access Study (PDF).

The single most surprising thing I learned from all this reading is that, at least on paper, the City of Tyler cares about me. The Tyler 21 plan is overflowing with references to creating a more livable and pedestrian friendly city. Specifically, it sets out intentions to create:

  • a network of parks and greenways (p. 6)
  • pedestrian walkways connecting business and leisure centers (p. 7)
  • a citywide system of bike trails. (p. 234)
  • conditions attractive to the “creative class”, by which it seems to mean information workers (p. 86)

In a truly bizarre twist of my expectations, Tyler seems to want me here.

A hypothetical downtown Tyler with greatly expanded greenspace.

I can only take all of this to mean one thing: somewhere in this city is a large contingent of people who either want to live a more urban lifestyle or imagine that encouraging others to do so is the only way to save their city from stagnation. This is a line of thought I am only too pleased to encourage.

Citizens of Tyler: your pedestrian infrastructure is terrible. Nevertheless, it’s possible to select a residence that allows you to walk to things you care about. In order to save others some of the time I spent researching where to live, I present my latest map:

Sidewalks of Tyler, Texas

Sidewalks of Tyler, Texas

This map was created from the same GIS data used in the Pedestrian Access Study. It shows the locations of every park, bus stop, school, bike trail, and sidewalk in the city. Type an address into the legend and you can see exactly what infrastructure is nearby.

(Special thanks to my new friends at Tyler GIS who provided me with a bunch of data that wasn’t previously available online.)

Now that I’ve been out and walked the streets of Tyler, I have to say I think the plans laid out in Tyler 21 are impressively on-target. Tyler needs to build a lot more sidewalks. However, I also foresee a few challenges that just building more sidewalks won’t solve:

  • Tyler’s downtown is a food desert. It is impossible to live within walking distance of a grocery store. Getting a green market as a downtown anchor should be a very high priority.
  • The lack of pedestrian signals makes travel on foot unsafe. Front and Broadway have some of the longest continuous sidewalks in the city, but crossing either one on foot is nearly impossible. (The tunnel under Broadway at Hogg Middle School is a notable exception.)
  • Too many bus stops lack shelters. Nobody wants to stand on the corner and look lost. If there isn’t a shelter, there effectively isn’t a bus stop.

My ability to live without a car will be extremely limited in Tyler and there is still a strong possibility I’ll end up buying one (for the moment I have a car whenever I have my son). Still, I’m heartened to see some indications that urbanism is taking hold in Tyler and I hope I can help encourage it. In the meantime, you’ll be able to identify me as the guy trying not to get hit by a Dodge Ram crossing Broadway.

Endnote: I’m here! If you’re a local who is interested in Hack Tyler or just wants to shoot the breeze, please get in touch. I’m eager to meet folks.

Hacking local business: observations on Smith County’s economy

I try to avoid thinking about economics.  It’s not a subject of contemplation that I enjoy. Nevertheless, my choices are driven in part by economics. The stress of personal economics contributed to my wife and I separating. It influenced her decision to move to Tyler and my capacity to follow. Economics, in this case a lease, is what kept me from moving earlier in the summer. And, of course, the United States is in a tremendous economic recession, which colors everything.

Amidst the the chaos, I’m changing jobs.

Given all of this, it seemed important that I learn something about the economics of my new home. One thing I do know about Texas is that it has weathered the recession remarkably well. Observers disagree about why this is, but for whatever reason the unemployment rate in Texas has consistently lagged 1-2% behind the US average. The regional economy of Smith County reflects this statewide trend:

Note: The Texas and United States unemployment rates have been seasonally adjusted. Seasonally adjusted data is not available for Smith County. Click the image for raw data and an interactive version of the graph.

To aid my exploration of the local economy I dove into the 2010 annual summary of the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and built myself an economic atlas of sorts:

Launch Smith County economic atlas

All sorts of useful information can be gleaned from this data—from banal to the highly curious. Here are a few highlights:

  • Last year in Smith County, 91,323 employees working at 5,383 places of business were paid 3.6 billion dollars.
  • The medical industry bears out its reputation as the cornerstone of the local economy—Trinity Mother Frances and East Texas Medical Center are the city’s two largest employers. All told, Health care and social assistance accounted for 26.23% of all payroll in 2010, not including government services.
  • Tyler is also known for hosting several major manufacturing companies, including Carrier and Trane. This is reflected in the 7.08% of all workers employed by the manufacturing sector. However, recent reports of layoffs at Trane seem to indicate that at least one regional employer is feeling the effects of stressed incomes in the broader US.
  • Car culture is in full evidence: Motor vehicle and parts dealers encompass 2.08% of all business establishments (the most of any Retail trade subsector). Gas stations represent another 1.62% and Auto repair businesses another 1.75%.
  • Smith County has virtually no significant natural resources: only 2.65% of all employees work in “Mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction" and "Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting" sectors combined.

Although my employment is secure for the moment, one hypothetical question that arose while I was researching this data is: If I had to find a job in Tyler, could I?

The numbers tell unfortunate truths: in private industry only 160 individuals are employed in the Computer systems design and related services industry group. Another 38 are employed by Software publishers. And last, but certainly not least, Tyler has 13 employees laboring tirelessly in an upstart industry called “Newspaper publishers”.  Notably this last category falls under the subhead, “Publishing industries, except Internet.” Literally no one is recorded as being employed in the sibling enterprise, “Internet publishing and broadcasting.”

A silver-lining on this must be noted though: whether by local anomaly or statistical error, those 13 “Newspaper publishers” are working in the 7th best paying industry in Smith County. According to the data, their average salary in 2010 was $109,778.