Community Characteristics

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Community characteristics can include information about an area’s natural features, such as how much land is covered by forests or water, and its human-made features from types of housing and roads to locations of hospitals, schools, or other public service buildings.

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Understanding the characteristics of a community is essential for all kinds of public health practices such as program planning and epidemiologic studies. Community characteristics are particularly important in public health emergency preparedness.

A key step in preparedness planning for any disaster, whether it be radiological, chemical, or natural, is identifying a community’s

  • most likely hazards
  • most vulnerable populations
  • available resources, and
  • ability to respond.

Knowledge of the local infrastructure, vulnerabilities, and resources enables public health professionals to quickly establish priorities and take proper actions during the emergency or disaster response.

Types of Data

The Tracking Network uses several national data sources to obtain state and local data about community characteristics. Sources include the Federal Emergency Management Agencyexternal icon, the American Hospital Associationexternal icon, and the U.S. Census Bureau’sexternal icon American Community Survey.

Flood Vulnerability
This indicator provides county level data on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) designated Special Flood Hazard Area including number of square miles within the area, the number of people living in the area, and the number of housing units within the area. These data can be used to estimate the number of people and housing units at risk from flooding.

Households
This indicator provides information about the housing units within a community. It includes the total number of housing units, as well as the number and percent of housing units with 10 or more units, more people than rooms, and no vehicle available. In addition, you can find the number and percent of vacant housing units, renter-occupied housing, and mobile homes. Also included are data on the number and percent of the population living in group quarters. Census tract, county, and state level data are available.

Internet Access
This indicator provides information about internet access. It includes number and percent of people with access to computer with internet (but no cell phone). It also includes the and number and percent of households with smartphones, households with a smartphone but no other device, and households with no internet access. In addition, you can find number and percent of people who have a computer without an internet subscription, with different age, income, and education options. Census tract, county, and state level data are available.

Land Cover
This indicator provides census tract, county, and state level data on the percent of land covered by water, percent of land covered by forest, and percent of developed imperviousness.

Land Use
This indicator provides census tract, county, and state level data on the percent of land used for agriculture and percent of developed land use. It also provides rural-urban county classifications.

Medical Infrastructure
This indicator provides county-level data on the numbers of hospitals, numbers of hospital beds, percentage of hospitals located within a flood hazard area, and percentage of hospital beds located within a flood hazard area. These data can be used to identify community vulnerabilities, plan resource needs, and inform disaster preparedness efforts.

Data Highlight
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Data in Action

Public health professionals can use the Tracking Network’s community characteristics data to

  • identify households or geographies likely to be affected by a public health emergency.
  • determine the amount of available resources within a community.
  • calculate the amount of resources needed for a public health response or for public safety.

Learn More

Related Content Areas
  • Community characteristics data can be used with Tracking Network data on Populations and Vulnerabilities to plan effective public health responses to public health emergencies.
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Page last reviewed: October 21, 2020