Over the past decade, central Ohio has experienced remarkable growth and prosperity.

Our population has increased by a quarter-million people in that time, reaching 2.4 million residents. We have seen billions of dollars invested by companies moving into the region and homegrown businesses alike. And the housing market has been blistering, with home prices shooting up seemingly as quickly as new apartment developments.

Despite the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission's population forecasts project central Ohio to grow to a region of 3 million residents by 2050. Those 3 million residents translate to nearly 1.2 million households and 1.5 million jobs.

Elemental to our work at MORPC is a commitment to engaging in ongoing, objective evaluation of regional trends and changes at the state, national and even global scale that could affect our region's growth.

We invest in this population work, in large part, to support our core regional-planning efforts, such as anticipating the region's long-term transportation needs. But MORPC demographic data also informs work by communities and partner organizations, contributing to a shared, data-driven understanding of growth and direction for our region.

Central Ohio's growth and success are worth celebrating.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that this success has not extended to many of our neighbors. Racial and income inequality, which so often accompany one another, are persistent challenges that hold the region back from fully capitalizing on its potential.

The emergence of COVID-19 and the recent racial-justice protests have brought new attention to these disparities. Black residents make up 12% of Ohio's population but account for 26% of the state's positive COVID-19 cases and 32% of hospitalizations.

However, those inequities are hardly new, and the work we do on a daily basis to plan for the region's future is full of examples of the inequities in our region:

* More than 40% of Black and Hispanic/Latinx households spend more than one-third of their income on housing, compared to just 25% of white households spending this much.

* Black applicants are twice as likely as white applicants to be denied a home loan (16% to 8%).

* The average household net worth in the region's lowest-opportunity neighborhoods ($120,000) is just 1/10 that of households in the highest-opportunity areas ($1.2 million).

* There is a life-expectancy gap of more than 27 years between the census tracts with the highest (87.6 years) and lowest (60 years) life expectancies in central Ohio, despite those two tracts being separated by fewer than 15 miles.

Data is a powerful tool that helps us identify disparities and work for change.

However, quantifying equity issues is just a start. In fact, focusing solely on outcome measures like educational attainment, home-ownership rates or employment status actually can reinforce existing stereotypes and "otherize" -- view or treat as different -- certain groups.

At MORPC, we leverage our data and mapping resources to uncover and understand the structural factors contributing to conditions in central Ohio, which in turn prompts further questions and exploration. Rather than providing the answers to the region's most pressing issues, we seek to support and instigate important community conversations among our local-government members and community leaders, which can lead to sustainable, inclusive solutions.

We are in a time of enormous social and economic uncertainty for central Ohio, but we also have a unique opportunity to advance the causes of prosperity and equity by being purposeful and inquisitive about the data we consume.

Aaron Schill is director of data and mapping for the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. MORPC's purpose is to bring communities of all sizes and interests together to collaborate on best practices and plan for the future of the region.