So Where Is the Data?

I work for a progressive, well-intentioned city, and I have become convinced that analysis and visualization of data can improve my city’s outcomes. But I immediately ran into a problem in the effort. Sure, we’ve been working to learn data analysis skills. We have sophisticated tech tools to analyze and visualize data. Our leadership is supportive.

But we weren’t sure where to find the data. We had a sort of blank page problem, a where-to-start uncertainty. Continue reading

When Global Goes Local: City and County Governments Tackle Climate Change

(Originally Posted at Voterheads.com)

To many of us, climate change feels like an overwhelming, global issue.  International organizations host world forums to determine what steps countries should take to help lessen what many consider to be the negative impacts of development on the earth and environment.  The recent Paris agreement, for example, took years to plan and long, hard negotiations to finalize.  So you may wonder: what can be done, or is being done, by local governments in terms of climate change? Continue reading

More on Fiscal Autonomy for Cities

Note: I attach an article I wrote for Practical Law about municipal finances. The kind people there have given me permission to share the article in my personal writing, and in exchange I will encourage you to take a look at the resources offered by Practical Law. Their existing content is probably the most useful resource of which I am aware, and they are diligently building new content for the state and local government lawyer. It’s a great tool and I hope you will explore it.

If you are interested in the topic, please refer to the attached article for a much more detailed treatment.

There is an enormous variation among the states on the specific laws applicable to municipal finances, but so far I’ve seen nothing to disabuse me of the notion that cities don’t have much latitude in how they raise, spend, and borrow money. There are probably lots of good reasons to narrow the options available to city government, from low voter turnout in city elections to (arguably) greater incidence of corruption at the city level to the possibility of disruptive urban economic protectionism. But I remain convinced that cities need more local flexibility in fiscal matters. Continue reading

Urban Devolution: The Need for Fiscal Autonomy

Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin have just published an article calling for urban devolution. I agree with their argument and have previously suggested that the future might involve a return to the city-state model. In the ensuing conversation, Michael Hoexter suggested that talk of urban devolution was pointless because “[w]ithout federal subsidies the ambitions of urban and regional planners will be fiscally stifled.” Of course he’s right – but I want to argue back to a logically prior premise. Continue reading

City-States of the Future

Crazy stuff is going to happen in the cities of the future. P.D. Smith’s City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age considers some of the possibilities in a section called “Futuropolis.” He describes “fantastic cities equipped with moving pavements, travelators, airships and aerial taxis landing on the tops of skyscrapers, personal jet-packs, computer-controlled vehicles, vertiginous glass skyscrapers, and even bioluminescent trees to replace street lights.” That all sounds pretty stupendous, so here’s hoping. Continue reading

The Data-Drive City 1a: What First?

When Eric explained his goal to apply the data lens, my first thought was “Dammit, that’s so good why didn’t I think of that?”

At our next lunch however, it was time to get to business.  Data is great, but data without purpose is like window shopping on Ebay: ain’t nothing good is gonna come of it.  Charles from GIS, who had joined us for our occasional trip to our amazingly authentic and spicy local Thai buffet, discussed some very cool work he was doing looking into intersection safety around the city.  While we briefly went down that path, Eric had recently read Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City and the multiple potential data-based questions about low-income rental evictions described were intriguing to both of us. Continue reading

The Data-Driven City 1: Initial Problems and Frames

We love data. Especially “big data” that fits neatly into spreadsheets and generates impressive graphs. We call some of those graphs infographics, or infauxgraphics, but even that witticism hints at an underlying discomfort: Data can be cool and interesting without being useful.

This note is the first in a proposed series about making data useful. My own occupation and curiosity is in city government, so the notes will consider the questions attendant to using data to make better decisions there. For the last four years, I have tried to do so in my own organization, the government in a city of 41,000 people in South Carolina. I have not had any outstanding success, and I would certainly not call myself an expert. But I have learned. I plan to ask questions, encourage comments, welcome communication, and adapt. I hope that people from inside and outside city government will find the series useful, and will consider participation worth their effort.

In short, I am trying to start a conversation about the data-driven city. Continue reading

The Prototyping City Government: Implement, Study, Correct.

I recently shared Tom Wujec’s “Build a Tower, Build a Team,” a TED Talk that explores results from the marshmallow challenge:

“Teams of four have to build the tallest free-standing structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string and a marshmallow. The marshmallow has to be on top. And, though it seems really simple, it’s actually pretty hard because it forces people to collaborate very quickly.”

I encourage you to watch it; the talk is less than seven minutes long and has several very useful insights. In this note, I discuss the primary insight that prototyping is more effective than planning.

Continue reading