February 2004 // Volume 42 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA2

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ORIGINS: A Valuable Web-Based Resource for Community Economic Development

This article describes a successful partnership among Oklahoma State University, the University of Oklahoma, and the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. Together they maintain an electronic database containing a wide range of Oklahoma-specific data. The Internet has made this bulletin board, called ORIGINS, incredibly easy for the average person to use. Recently, the biggest complaint regarding ORIGINS is that it almost has too much data. Educators at the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service at OSU have taken their wireless computer lab on the road to try to teach community leaders about the Internet, about ORIGINS, and about other tools available to help develop local economies.

Suzette Barta
Assistant Extension Economist
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK

Michael D. Woods
Professor and Extension Economist
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK

Robert Dauffenbach
Director, Center of Economic and Management Research
University of Oklahoma
Norman, OK

Jeff Wallace
Director, State Data Center
Oklahoma Department of Commerce
Oklahoma City, OK


Often, tough times bring out the best in people. Despite a growing national economy throughout most of the 1990s, many rural communities in Oklahoma continued to decline economically following the oil industry bust of the mid-1980s. A few unfortunate communities watched their downtowns die, their young people move away, and their schools close. Other communities stood up and said "we're not going to take this without putting up a fight," and fight is what they have done.

Leaders in these spirited communities formed active coalitions designed to affect local change. For example, since 1986, 44 communities have been a part of the Oklahoma Main Street program--focused on developing their economies through downtown revitalization and historic preservation. Others have focused on business and industry attraction, while still others have become experts in applying for available grants towards economic development projects.

Many of these active communities have discovered that there are resources available to them and organizations willing to work with them in their economic development efforts. The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service (OCES) at Oklahoma State University, the Oklahoma Department of Commerce (ODOC), and the University of Oklahoma (OU) are all examples of willing partners in these efforts. In fact, these three organizations have partnered with each other for the last 15 years to bring one very important resource to community and business leaders across the state. That resource is data.

All communities seem to be hungry for data in their economic development efforts. They need economic data to understand the community's employment and income situation; demographic data to understand the community's characteristics in terms of age, sex and race; and retail sales data to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the local economy. Industrial Development Authorities need data so they know what kinds of business and industry to recruit. Grant writers need income statistics in order to show financial need. Potential business owners need demographic data in order to estimate the size of their potential market.

Extension economists at OSU or the State Data Center at ODOC, or the Center for Economic and Management Research at OU are all happy to provide assistance in the area of data retrieval. However, much of the relevant data is already available to the public in the form of ORIGINS--an electronic database of Oklahoma specific information including employment, income, population, and retail sales.

Recent acquisition of a mobile, wireless computer lab has made it easier than ever for the ORIGINS partners (OSU, ODOC, and OU) to take ORIGINS out into the communities where it belongs. Web training workshops offered by the ORIGINS partners are designed to teach participants how to use the site and how to implement the data for their own purposes. This article introduces the ORIGINS Web site and describes how Extension educators are using this valuable Web-based resource to assist Oklahoma communities in their economic development efforts.

History of ORIGINS

In response to Oklahoma's plummeting economy in 1986, political candidates began to talk about "economic development" as the state's number one policy issue. One policy suggestion was to create a readily accessible economic development database (Hoff-Hisey, Woods, Dauffenbach, Lingerfelt, & Wallace, 1995) containing a wide array of Oklahoma-specific data. As a result, ORIGINS (Oklahoma Resources Integration General Information Network System) was established by the Oklahoma Economic Development Act of 1987 as a cooperative effort between Oklahoma State University, the University of Oklahoma, and the Oklahoma Department of Commerce.

When first developed, the database was maintained at OSU, and the user was required to dial into the OSU mainframe computer system through the use of a personal computer, modem, and communication software. A toll-free telephone number was available to in-state users, but out-of-state users would be subject to long-distance charges. Users were limited to 173 minutes per logon, while data retrieval was often slow. To help speed up retrieval time, graphics were avoided.

Today, the database is housed at the University of Oklahoma and has been accessible to the public, at no charge, through the World Wide Web since 1995. Especially when compared to the ORIGINS of the early 1990's, the database is extremely simple to use. Just log on at http://origins.ou.edu/.

The three original entities--OSU, OU, and ODOC--still collaborate to bring this electronic bulletin board to the citizens of Oklahoma. Each entity has its own distinct role in the delivery of ORIGINS. ODOC is the home of the state data center and is the first to receive new data from sources such as the Census, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Programmers at OU's Center for Economic and Management Research (CEMR) continually update the information available on ORIGINS. As a result, the data is probably the most up-to-date collection of Oklahoma-specific data available on the Web. These programmers are always searching for ways to make the Web site more user-relevant and more user-friendly.

Economists at the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service at OSU are responsible for taking the Web site directly to Oklahoma communities. Among other activities, OCES conducts ORIGINS training workshops across the state. The workshops are both exercises in how to use the Internet and how to access and implement the wealth of information that is available from ORIGINS and on the Web.

Even though the ORIGINS partnership has been around for a number of years, its relevance couldn't be any more timely than it is in today's technologically advanced environment. According to Cleland and Maggard, (2002) Web-based resources are needed in the development of community-building skills, and according to the US Department of Commerce's report, Falling Through the Net, increasing the number of Americans using technology tools is a "vitally important national goal."


ORIGINS is a portal to many kinds of social, economic, and demographic data that are specific to the state of Oklahoma and Oklahoma counties. Data on ORIGINS is organized into three categories: data series, reports, and data summaries. Below is a sample of some of the data available in each of the three categories.

Data Series Available on ORIGINS

  • Retail sales estimates: Includes monthly sales subject to sales tax for Oklahoma counties and selected Oklahoma cities. Also includes monthly retail sales estimates for selected Oklahoma cities, metropolitan areas and the state.
  • Employment: Includes Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates of number of full- and part-time jobs by sector annually for Oklahoma counties.
  • Labor force: Includes monthly unemployment figures and unemployment rates by county.
  • Income: Includes Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates of annual total personal income by county and per capita income by county.
  • Population: Includes 1990 and 2000 Census data on population.

Reports Available on ORIGINS

  • Oklahoma Statistical Abstract: Contains statistics in areas ranging from government to manufacturing to education.
  • Oklahoma Business Bulletin: Is a scholarly journal published quarterly by the CEMR.
  • Economic Outlook: Is an OSU publication that forecasts the state's economy.
  • Local Area Labor Force Reports: Are based on surveys of the labor market conducted by the CEMR. Currently, labor force reports are available for 28 communities.

Data Summaries Available on ORIGINS

  • Agricultural Overview
  • Government Abstract
  • Labor Force Review
  • Price Indexes
  • Income Summary
  • Mining Review

New Features on ORIGINS

The days of limited logons are gone. So too is the necessity of avoiding graphics. Today's ORIGINS has some graphic features that are very impressive. For example, the retail trade data series has a graphing option. The user selects the information and ORIGINS will create the graph. In addition, several of the data series have a mapping option. Just click on the title of the map you would like to see, and ORIGINS will create a county map of Oklahoma such as the one shown in Figure 1.

Some of the maps that are currently available on ORIGINS include the following.

  • Total Population 1990
  • Total Population 2000
  • Percent Change in Population 1990-2000
  • Percent Change in Per Capita Personal Income by County, 1990-1999
  • Percent Change in Per Capita Personal Income by State, 1990-1999
  • County Unemployment Rates: 1980, 1990, 2000, 2001
  • Sales Subject to Sales Tax for Oklahoma Counties: 2001 Level

Figure 1.
Example of Mapping Option on ORIGINS

A map of Oklahoma showing counties color-coded by population.

ORIGINS Training

The reports and statistics found on ORIGINS are designed to assist students, economic developers, community volunteers, grant writers, business-owners, researchers, etc. It is unfortunate, however, that many of these groups do not know about the Web site, and those who have heard of the site are often daunted by the sheer volume of information that is available. To help acquaint the public with the Web site, the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service offers an ORIGINS Web training workshop to interested community groups. The purposes of the class are three-fold:

  • ORIGINS awareness
  • Site navigation
  • Uses for the data

A typical ORIGINS training class generally consists of 10-20 community leaders who often include, but are not limited to, Chamber and Main Street directors, city employees, tribal representatives, librarians, bankers, and business owners. Generally, a county educator will take the lead in setting up one of these training workshops. The need for this training may arise as the county educator becomes involved in one or more community groups, such as the local Chamber of Commerce. This was the case in Pottawatomie County, where the county director worked with the Shawnee Chamber of Commerce to set up the session and to invite the interested parties.

Once organized, the 2-hour training walks the participants through the ORIGINS Web site, highlights the available data, and suggests local uses of the data. Other Web sites that are good sources of data, such as the U.S. Census Bureau site (http://www.census.gov), are also examined.

Until recently, the requirements for hosting an ORIGINS training workshop were difficult for a small community to meet. Most community groups do not have easy access to a computer lab that is Internet ready and will seat 10-20 people. In the past, these workshops were often held at career-technology centers (vocational schools), or, sometimes, community groups would travel to the campus of Oklahoma State University to participate in a workshop. Neither option was particularly convenient for many communities. 

Today, it's much easier for a community to host a Web-based workshop. The recent availability and affordability of wireless networking technologies have drastically reduced the requirements for doing so and have opened the door to computer-based training for previously underserved populations (Parsons et al, 2002). The OCES currently has one mobile, wireless computer lab with 20 laptop computers available for use across the state. The requirements for a hosting a workshop are simply:

  • A room large enough to hold the number of people the group plans to invite, and
  • One high speed Internet line such as DSL, cable modem, or T1 fiber optic line.

Attaching the wireless lab to an Internet connection gives the participants the ability to work along, online, with the instructor. They are even given a little time to "play around" online. This "play time" is actually very beneficial because it allows the participants to search for the kind of information that is of interest to them while the instructor stands by, ready to answer any questions.

ORIGINS Training Evaluation

About a year ago, our partners at the Oklahoma Department of Commerce and the University of Oklahoma asked us to begin providing them feedback on the Web site. We have always been in the habit of evaluating our workshops, but now we also ask questions on our evaluations that directly pertain to the Web site and how it is being used in communities. Summaries of these evaluations and comments are provided to our partners and are used by programmers at OU to make the Web site more user-friendly.

For example, ORIGINS Web training classes were recently held in Shawnee, Oklahoma and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Through coordination by the Pottawatomie County Extension Director, the Shawnee Chamber of Commerce took advantage of the mobile wireless computer lab and held their training session in a small classroom at the Pottawatomie County Extension Office. The Tulsa session was hosted by an economic development organization based in Skiatook, Oklahoma. Unfortunately, Skiatook did not have a facility equipped with high speed Internet access, so the group decided to hold the training at the Tulsa campus of Oklahoma State University.

Between these two sessions, a total of 25 participants completed program evaluations. Results of these evaluations have been very positive, indicating that community leaders find this kind of training to be valuable to them in their local economic development efforts.

Of the 25 respondents, 52% had never heard of ORIGINS before, and 72% had never used it. It's a shame that these people did not know that this valuable resource existed, but the good news is that 100% of the participants indicated that they would probably use ORIGINS in the future, and 76% said they would definitely use ORIGINS in the future. This kind of response is very exciting because it says two things:

  1. ORIGINS is a valuable resource for community leaders, and
  2. ORIGINS Web training classes are an important way to introduce ORIGINS into the communities.

When the people who indicated that they would definitely use ORIGINS again were asked how they planned to use it, some of the most common answers included:

  • Grant applications,
  • Planning,
  • Compiling the data for business prospects,
  • Understanding the market, and
  • Just to have the data and statistics available.

A lot of different kinds of data are available on ORIGINS, but the data many participants believed would be the most useful to them in the future included:

  • BEA Employment data (17 of 25),
  • Census 2000 (16 of 25),
  • Oklahoma Labor Force Information (14 of 25), and
  • BEA Personal Income data (12 of 25)

When asked to identify what they liked most about ORIGINS, many respondents said they were impressed with the wealth of information that was available in one place. Ironically, the biggest problem identified is that there is "almost too much information in one place." This wealth of data available to communities over the Internet has changed the way community leaders and activists access information. The training sessions offer to "hand-hold" these leaders for a few hours as they increase their level of confidence in their ability to use this technology. Community contacts and Extension staff report use of ORIGINS for everything from grant applications to small business development.

Adding Value to ORIGINS Data

As indicated above, many community leaders immediately recognize how they can use the data that is available on ORIGINS. Others may prefer to have the data assembled for them in order to address a particular issue or concern. Economists at the OCES certainly recognized this need as they began to develop their community economic development (CED) toolkit (Barta & Woods, 2002). For instance, the ORIGINS Report, as it is called, is a very popular component of the CED toolkit among Oklahoma communities. The ORIGINS Report is an environmental scan of a community and/or county that highlights trends in population, employment, income, and retail sales. For an example in Cimarron County Oklahoma, see our Web site at http://www.rd.okstate.edu/ORIGINSrpt.htm.

Another very popular report in Oklahoma's CED toolkit is the Retail Trends Report (Barta & Woods, 2001). This report highlights trends in a community's retail market by tracking sales tax collections as provided by the Oklahoma Tax Commission. Sales tax collections are used to estimate trade area capture and retail pull for the local economy. A "gap analysis" for the community in 8 separate retail sectors can reveal relative strengths and weaknesses. For a recent example tracking retail sales in Dewey, OK see our Web site http://www.rd.okstate.edu/Retail.htm.

Economic Impact studies, which also utilize ORIGINS data, describe the expected impact on the local economy due to a change in the economic base. The concept can be applied to a wide range of situations. Examples include:

  • The Economic Impact of Special Olympics Oklahoma on the Economy of Stillwater, Oklahoma;
  • The Economic Impacts of East Central University on the Economy of Pontotoc County, Oklahoma; and
  • The Economic Impact of the Sports Complex on the Economy of Antlers, Oklahoma.

The Center for Economic and Management Research (CEMR) at the University of Oklahoma also has some data tools available to communities. For instance, Local Area Labor Force Reports conducted by the CEMR analyze the availability of labor in local areas with particular focus given to identifying and profiling the underemployed. A local group that is interested in learning more about their labor market generally sponsors these studies. Researchers at the CEMR place hundreds or even thousands of random telephone calls to residents in the area. Currently, 28 Local Area Labor Force Reports are available on the ORIGINS Web site.

Concluding Remarks

The electronic bulletin board/data base called ORIGINS has been around for 15 years, and it represents a unique and successful partnership between the two major state universities, Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma, as well as with the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. Each year this Web-based resource improves as programmers at OU and ODOC become more and more skilled at updating the data files and finding better ways to present the data. Their biggest challenge is how to reasonably present such a large amount of data.

In today's world, more and more data and information are becoming available online. Extension educators across Oklahoma (and the nation) recognize this fact and are taking advantage of it. When citizens in their county have data needs, educators are sending them directly to ORIGINS or are finding the data for them on ORIGINS. In fact, we recently conducted an ORIGINS training class specifically for Family and Consumer Science educators in northwest Oklahoma. Understanding the Web site will make it easier for these educators to deliver data and information to their clients. Some of these educators indicated that they would definitely use ORIGINS for such things as focus and advisory groups and program development.

Technological advances, such as affordable wireless networking, are also making it easier for Extension Educators at OSU to take this resource to the public. Value-added data products, such as the "ORIGINS Report," can be quickly posted to the Internet for public consumption. The greatest challenge for educators at the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service is how to get community leaders, many of whom are not yet comfortable with the Internet, to take advantage of this valuable resource.


Barta, S., Trzebiatowski, S., Pirtle, R., Frye, J., & Woods, M. (2002). Analysis of retail trends and taxable sales for Dewey, Oklahoma and Washington County, Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, Oklahoma State University, AE-02001, [Online]. Available at: http://www.rd.okstate.edu/Retail.htm

Barta, S., Trzebiatowski, S., Gillin, S., Ralstin, S., & Woods, M. (2002). A summary of economic conditions and trends in Boise City and Cimarron County, Oklahoma, Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, Oklahoma State University, AE-02011, [Online]. Available at: http://www.rd.okstate.edu/ORIGINSrpt.htm

Barta, S., Trzebiatowski, S., Frye, J., Arnold, J., & Woods, M. (2002). The economic impact of East Central University on the economy of Pontotoc County, Oklahoma, Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, Oklahoma State University, AE-02014.

Barta, S., Trzebiatowski, S., Frye, J., Johnson, L., & Woods, M. (2002). The economic impact of the sports complex on the economy of Antlers, Oklahoma, Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, Oklahoma State University, AE-02134.

Barta, S., Woods, M., Trzebiatowski, S., & Cain, D. (2002). The economic impact of Special Olympics Oklahoma on the economy of Stillwater, OK. Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, Oklahoma State University, AE-02135.

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