Non Technical Summary
The ability to manage, support, and communicate with local businesses rapidly and effectively has always been a key component of local economic development, and has become exceedingly urgent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rural jurisdictions are especially faced with the challenges of limited resources, limited capacity, or both. Rural economic development leaders and communities will benefit greatly by having a technology solution that helps maximize their impact in economic recovery.Through this research project, Bludot will partner with approximately forty-three rural communities who will pilot, launch, and utilize the Bludot platform in their respective jurisdictions. Bludot will analyze and evaluate the communities' usage, results, and feedback, which will have an invaluable contribution to advancing Bludot's technology solution for the benefit of all other rural communities in the country.Bludot empowers eachrural economic development staff by giving themthe tools they need to excel at their work. This not only has significant market potential, but immense socioeconomic impact. Findings from this research will directly contribute to a system that will build rural economic development capacity and lead to expansion of businesses, creation of jobs, and overall betterment of rural Americans' quality of life.
Animal Health Component
Research Effort Categories
Goals / Objectives
Bludot has identified two main research topicsto analyze, as follows:A. Efficacy of local capacity building, communications, and managerial functionalityWe shall evaluate the impact on capacity building by having a central platform to track engagements with local businesses and collaborate amongst staff. We shall also evaluate the effectiveness of a digital communication platform between local government and businesses, and evaluate the effect on business outreach, business engagement, and retention initiatives. We will study whether having an easy-to-use communication tool enables local economic development leaders to perform more outreach, conduct more targeted campaigns, run more economic development initiatives, and offer more resources. We will also study whether having a user-friendly communication channel empowers businesses to connect with the local government more freely, have more touchpoints, and get more support, hence leading to better retention and expansion results.B. Impact of big data and accessibilityWe shall analyze the impact of getting local business-related data from various external sources and making them easily available to local economic development leaders. We will import any existing data already available at each community, and supplement with the data we source. Additionally, we will examine the impact of tracking data analytics within the platform and provide real-time feedback around business metrics and activity, such as message open rates, sector distribution, and map-based visualization. We will evaluate whether providing this increased accessibility to data can yield increased effectiveness in strategic decision-making at the local level.To fulfillthe above mentioned goals,Bludot has the following four technical objectives that will establish the technical feasibility of the proposed approach.Technical objective 1:To continue to develop, test, and improve Bludot's data algorithms.There are several key data-related processes that will be evaluated.1. Initial onboarding: merging between the community's dataset and the external data we source.Merging requires a method by which we can confidently match the same business record across multiple datasets. In real practice this can be tricky, as one business may have different versions of names (e.g., legal name vs. Doing Business As name) or different spelling (e.g., "Toys for You" vs. "Toys 4 U"). As we test our algorithms using the larger amount of data as part of the SBIR Phase 1 research, we will be able to improve the algorithm' matching efficacy, reduce errors, and handle corner cases.2. Subsequent updates: sync the update files with existing dataset.Businesses in a community are not constant. New businesses open, and some businesses close. Businesses can also move, change owners, open another location, change its name, etc. Thus, periodic updating of the datasets is required. The updating algorithm must be able to (1) identify the discrepancies between the new dataset and existing dataset, (b) identify which changes are due to manual overwrite (e.g., there is an error in the dataset which an user manually corrected via the user interface) vs. valid updates, and (c) perform the updates securely. An error in this algorithm can have significant implications for loss of critical data. Hence, it is critical that this algorithm is thoroughly tested during Phase 1 research before rolling out to a larger scale implementation.3. External data sources: which data sources can we acquire from external sources, and to what extent can it be automated.Leveraging our technical expertise to source data from external sources and make it easily available for communities to use is a core value-add of our platform. We have so far started with Data Axle's database, and through thisproject we will evaluate, test, and enhance processes to acquire data from additional sources systematically.Technical objective 2: To effectively scale, while maintaining product performance, to meet the increased number of communities and increased amount of data.Bludot is deployed on the AWS cloud computing platform. As part of the research, we will evaluate the deployment impact of the increase in scale which will provide critical information for future expansion.Product performance can be measured in various ways, such as response time when you click a button, refresh a page, or send a message. Most actions correlate with a backend data query, which can become slower as datasets increase in size. We will continuously monitor the performance metrics throughout usage of our system and gauge the changes; when impact on performance is detected, we will investigate promptly and devise a solution. These improvements will be foundational to the follow-onexpansion and ultimately large-scale commercialization.Technical objective 3: To enhance the product's user interface such that it can be successfully used by economic development leaders.User experience is key to our platform. If users struggle with any functionality of the system, not only does it waste precious time, it also discourages future usage altogether. Feature design must be tested with real users. Observing how users interact with the system in a real-life situation is one of the most informative and must-have activities. "Observing" does not mean looking over their shoulders; we may "observe" in the background by monitoring user behavior digitally, logging and reviewing any errors, as well as tracking key indicators without interfering with the user's work.Technical objective 4: To identify missing functionalities and their sequence of priorities.Any new product must be used, tried, and tested in the real world in order to reveal its strengths and weaknesses, and ways to improve. Every community that has used our system so far has given us critical feedback relating to product functionality. It is the user feedback that has and will continue to shape the product. Throughout thisresearch project, we will continue to ask this question and listen to communities' feedback to take the system to the next level.
The project will be conducted in the following sequence of stages:1)Community Onboarding and Data ImportFor each participating community, we will gather the available, existing dataset from the community, to whatever extent possible.Then, we will utilize our data processes to source externally available, business-level data for each community. We will leverage our existing data partner Data Axle. We will also identify other potential data sources, evaluate their data content and quality, and if deciding to move forward, implement a systematic process.We will then conduct a merging algorithm between the community's data and the external data we sourced. In this step, we will evaluate the results of the algorithm against the datasets, confirm the quality of the matches including any false positives or false negatives, and readjust the algorithm to optimize results. This will be an iterative process to produce an optimal algorithm that will allow us to perform the most effective comparison and achieve the best results in merging business records.Once the merging algorithm is complete and results optimized, we will import the final merged data into the database and set up the Bludot workspace for each community.Subsequently, we will conduct data updates on a quarterly basis. For each data update, again, we will take any existing data from the local communities as well as external data we source, and run through our update algorithm. We will evaluate the results of the algorithm against the new datasets as well as existing data, confirm the quality of the sync, identify any records that were missed or mis-updated, and readjust the algorithm. An error in this algorithm can have significant implications for loss of critical data. Hence, it is critical that this algorithm is thoroughly tested and results confirmed before rolling out to communities.2) Usage and MonitoringOnce the initial onboarding is complete, local economic development staff may begin using the platform in their respective communities. We will provide training and support as much as needed to each participating staff. Each community shall use the platform to the extent that fits their community and their economic development initiatives. We will maintain a close and collaborative relationship with each of the rural community partners, as we have done with all of our existing community partners. We shall be available to answer any questions, address any issues, and help them implement the tool in a way that best supports their needs.We will monitor the status of the server instances on an ongoing basis as the volume of data and user queries grow. Any worsening indicator will be reviewed immediately. Any changes required to maintain the optimal performance and ensure application uptime will be addressed in the highest priority.We will also regularly monitor the performance metrics/KPIs as users interact with the platform. If we observe any excessively lengthened processing times, it will be reviewed immediately and the appropriate action taken. Any errors or exceptions thrown within the platform will also be tracked. If it is something that a user is experiencing on their end, we may conduct a virtual tech support session to assist and evaluate remotely.3) Evaluation and FeedbackAs our rural government partners use the platform in their communities, we will actively seek their feedback on what they like, don't like, or find missing in the tool. As this task is more qualitative in nature, it will rely on direct engagements with each community. Communities shall feel free to provide feedback at any time; if not, we shall proactively check in at least once a month.For each suggestion we receive, if it is a quick fix, we may roll out the fix relatively quickly, within a few days. If it is a more extensive feature development, we will evaluate its priority against our existing development roadmap and plan accordingly. Throughout this process, we will remain agile as we have been, and diligently listen and respond to our users' feedback.Each time we release a fix or a new feature to the platform, all partner jurisdictions will access the latest version instantaneously, upon which we will continue to monitor their usage, gather feedback on the new version, and continue making improvements, hence making this an iterative process.Through our own evaluation as well as user's direct feedback, we will identify the areas where users may find hard to use. We may involve the user in our redesign process to ensure that we find the best way to address their requirements. Once we make the improvements per our process described above, we will be able to gather feedback again from this user as well as other users and confirm that the fix has worked and the issue resolved.As is the case with our existing community partners, their feedback often suggests a functionality that we don't have yet. With the communities' help, we may identify their relative importance from nice-to-have to must-have. The functionalities that can be delivered within the duration of this project period will again go through the iterative process and gather more feedback as communities put it to use.4) Final Project ConclusionIn the final month of the project, we shall focus on the final project conclusion, and consolidate all the findings we have gathered to answer the following two research priorities, as previously identified:A. Efficacy of local capacity building, communications, and managerial functionalityWe will conduct quantitative as well as qualitative analysis to address this question. Quantitatively, Bludot will examine its back-end data, such as staff usage, communications sent, communications open rates, and local businesses' engagements.Qualitatively, Bludot will perform at least 10 comprehensive interviews with communities' users. We will capture any short-term strategies that local economic development leaders used to meet their businesses needs and/or any success strategies of retention or expansion.B. Impact of big data and accessibilityThis research priority will also be addressed via both quantitative and qualitative analysis.Quantitatively, Bludot will be able to gauge via back-end data how much has Bludot sourced data played role in the community's usage. This could be being used as an identifier in an outreach, in a map-based analysis, or in a dashboard chart, to name a few. If a significant percentage of usage can be attributed to the availability of Bludot sourced data, then it is a strong indicator of its value.Qualitatively, Bludot will also include questions in the final interview around how much the data has, or has not, empowered the community's economic development initiatives. Again, open discussion is encouraged to offer reasoning and examples as to why or why not.The last piece of data point would be how many of the communities decide to retain the tool at the conclusion of this project. This will be a strong indicator of whether the Bludot solution meets a significantly enough need and delivers significantly enough impact that communities are willing to invest.