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New data, insights into how Grand Rapidians experience their city

The 2015 VoiceGR Community Survey by the Dorothy Johnson Center for Philanthropy at GVSU reveals how residents experience our city.
Dr. Jodi Peterson of Dorothy A. Johnson Center at GVSU

Dr. Jodi Peterson of Dorothy A. Johnson Center at GVSU /Image provided by Grand Valley State University

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Survey information available to all, online and in print form

The VoiceGR survey, conducted in English, Spanish and some Asian languages, has been available online and through paper versions for  three years. The survey results and graphic tools are available online.  Graphics will be made available to all, regardless of access to technology and internet. To get printouts or learn more about accessing information from the survey contact [email protected] or call 616-331-6692.


Joe Jones of Grand Rapids Urban League is also the Grand Rapids Second Ward City Commissioner

Joe Jones of Grand Rapids Urban League is also the Grand Rapids Second Ward City Commissioner /Image provided by Grand Valley State University

Diana Sieger, President of Grand Rapids Community Foundation

Diana Sieger, President of Grand Rapids Community Foundation /Image provided by Grand Valley State University

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Data nerds have a new tool for insights into how Grand Rapidians feel about their city. The newest VoiceGR Community Survey was presented at Kroc Community Center by the Dorothy Johnson Center for Philanthropy on March 2.

"Figures and numbers can seem pretty dull for a lot of people. But it doesn’t have to be that way," says Grand Rapids' Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. “I love data! And in the city of Grand Rapids, data drives decisions.”

Thanks to the way the survey can be viewed, data’s dry days may be disappearing, at least in this community. At the 2016 VoiceGR Summit, Grand Rapids’ nonprofit leaders were among the first to see the results of the VoiceGR Community Survey, which was conducted in 2015. They learned about easy, interesting ways to access and use the data.

Dr. Jodi Peterson, interim director of the Community Research Institute, who led the research, started the Summit with overview of how the survey was administered. Mayor Bliss then treated the audience to some key insights before introducing the first of several guest speakers. Diana Sieger of Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Joe Jones of the Grand Rapids Urban League and Milinda Ysasi Castanon of The Source expanded on the findings and shared personal tales. These three, along with other nonprofit leaders, reported on how the data can be viewed through different lenses, taking account of the various people and social conditions of West Michigan.

Mayor Bliss said “The tools and maps created with the data, allow decision makers to measure outcomes while taking into consideration the age, race, geography and other differences that impact the life experiences across our city.”

The survey gathered the voices of over 5000 Grand Rapids residents in 2015 and includes facts about trends and current perspectives. Some key findings include:

  • Over 80% of greater GR area residents gave the city a grade of A or B as a place to live
  • 63% agreed that schools in the community are committed to building each child’s strengths
  • 21% reported not being able to meet their basic needs of housing, utilities, food and clothing.
  • Issues of concern in neighborhoods are crime, safety, infrastructure and lack of community cohesion.
  • Top strengths of neighborhoods include the community of people, location and infrastructure.

On the face of it, some of these findings may seem contradictory.  But researchers easily point out why, at first glance, real data gathered from citizens can look inconsistent. Dr. Peterson, explained, “Areas identified by residents as being both strengths and weakness for a community indicate areas that are of great importance to that community.”

That's just one example of how data can be confusing to the uninitiated. Stacks of incomprehensible statistics are often shuffled to the back burner if the facts aren’t easily digestible. Because of this, the Community Research Institute has made great efforts to present data from this survey in ways that are interactive, interesting and easy to access.  

A day after the summit, Jodi Peterson shared her thoughts. "I think my biggest take away from VoiceGR is that people living in the Grand Rapids area have a huge diversity of experiences and opinions," she said. "It’s important not to look just at data for Kent County or Grand Rapids as a whole, but to break the data down by smaller geographies and demographic characteristics like age, race/ethnicity, education, and income."  

Discrimination, in many forms, was the focus of several survey questions, including racism, sexism, and familial status. Other concerns that were measured include basic needs like food, shelter, utilities and clothing, transportation and overall water quality of the Grand River.  Those in attendance at the summit weren’t shy about sharing their ideas for other important areas of interest in Grand Rapids.

Suggestions for deeper questioning were abundant. During a lively audience participation session, nonprofit leaders suggested expanding the number of languages in which the survey can be administered, inclusion of data about addiction, expansion of choices in the area of faith preferences, information about pregnancy and infant mortality and the need to include the city’s most vulnerable citizens in the study.  

One commenter's question was particularly notable, concerning voices of urban youth and how their important perspective could be captured. Shandra Steininger, Executive Director of HQ, a drop-in center for runaway and homeless youth, expressed the importance of including these at-risk residents in the survey.  Dr. Peterson explained that because of requirements for parental consent, the survey is closed to people under the age of 18. But, Steininger suggests, “There are creative, effective ways to get this data. We just have to be resourceful.”

According to Peterson, "We hope VoiceGR can serve a variety of purposes in the community and empower residents and organizations through access to data that can inform their decisions." To see for yourself go to the Johnson Center's VoiceGR page and discover more details about Grand Rapids community information through data visualization tools and an interactive neighborhood map. Check out the Tableau Public visualization tool, interactive mapping tool, and data visualization tool. All three break down the information at various levels.

For more information contact Jodi Peterson or call 616-331-6692.

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