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Faculty, Students Part of Patchwork Nation

By Mike Unger

Photo: screen save

Where the rest of the inside-the-Beltway political establishment saw only blue and red, Dante Chinni saw gray—and opportunity.

As a longtime political reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, Chinni knew the nation’s geographical political breakdown couldn’t be neatly shoehorned into two primary-colored categories.

“You travel around the country and you start to see similarities,” he said. “You go to a place in Tennessee and you notice that it’s Tennessee, but it doesn’t feel different than a place in suburban Minneapolis.”

In 2008 Chinni co-created Patchwork Nation, a reporting project that explores what is happening in the United States by examining different kinds of communities over time. The Web site divides America’s 3,141 counties into 12 community types based on certain demographic characteristics, such as income level, racial composition, employment, and religion. Information is updated frequently using Census data and myriad other statistics.

Chinni joined the adjunct faculty at American University’s School of Public Affairs this semester and recruited his friend and rec league hockey teammate Gregg Ivers, a professor of government at SPA, to serve as director of academic blogging and campus outreach.

Students in each of their respective undergraduate classes contribute by researching congressional districts and writing blog entries for possible publication.

“Their job is to cover the way the district is being covered,” Chinni said. “They read the national political and economic media and the local media to get at some of the differences in their reporting.”

The site, funded in large part by the Knight Foundation and affiliated with many major media organizations, including PBS NewsHour, allows users to get a detailed understanding of specific issues that affect a particular community. A few quick clicks reveal fascinating correlations like this one: areas with the highest frequency of Tea Party meet-ups from July to October also have high foreclosure rates.

“The conventional media narrative is we are a nation divided into red states and blue states,” Ivers said. “I grew up in Atlanta. When I hear people talk about the South, well, which South? Are you talking about the city of Atlanta, which is run for and by African Americans, are you talking about some of the close suburbs, which I would liken politically to Montgomery County—affluent, white, well educated? If you drove 20 more miles outside of the city, you get every stereotype you’re looking for. There’s not a shortage of pickup trucks.

“Dante grew up outside of Detroit,” Ivers said. “Michigan is a very big state, and why it votes for Democrats may not be the same reason that Cambridge (Mass.) votes for Democrats. They might be concerned about a steady supply of organic arugula, whereas in Michigan they’re looking for people who can get them a good job, and they don’t give a damn about where their lettuce comes from.”

Ivers’s initial blog post examined the upcoming Supreme Court term. It uses a hockey analogy (what else?) to demonstrate just how little the public knows about the court’s work.

Patchwork Nation ensures that the country’s demographic and political makeup no longer have to remain a mystery.

“Unemployment numbers come out monthly,” Chinni said. “It’s interesting to map it when you sort it by the types of communities we’ve identified. Everyone knows the unemployment rate is 10 percent, but in tractor country it’s well below 6 percent. The point is those national numbers you get are just an abstraction. No one really lives in that environment, you live in the community you live in.”