Even when in possession of good and useful data, humans behave irrationally. City government is itself given to irrationality, particularly when politics is involved. Given that the purpose of this series (here and here, so far) is to explore how best to gather, analyze, and apply data to city government, what to do about this persistent irrationality? 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.
Oh Public Transportation, wherefore art thou?
As I return from a trip to San Francisco, I reflect on how different my transportation needs and experience are between there and my home base in Columbia, South Carolina. This was the second of two work-related trips this year, and was a relatively long one of two weeks. During that time, including vehicular weekend trips, probably 70% of my segments were on mass transit, while during any period of time back home, none are. I find it strange, especially given that I grew up in with mass-transit as my default mode of transportation from childhood through high school, that my behavior is so incongruous.
This is a common conundrum for many transit planners across the Southeast, and one with which I empathize. Given my upbringing, why don’t I take transit more? At the same time, as I observe our local buses, I generously estimate most of them operate at less than 10% capacity: I’m clearly not the only one. So, I thought I’d deliberately walk through the mental calculus I’ve gone through in the past to see if I could figure out what it would take. Continue reading
The Invention of People Watching
During the short interval of my life in which I lived in New York City, I never lacked for a way to spend a Saturday. When in doubt, I just walked out my front door and wandered around. That doesn’t work where I live now; for all the attentive landscaping in my neighborhood (thank you, flower gardeners), I can’t seem to lose track of time here like I could walking in NYC.
I could draw out the punchline, but given the title of this entry you’ve likely guessed it already. What made NYC continuously and invariably interesting was other people, out and around, either watching other people like I was, or doing something else entirely. We call this, unsurprisingly but without variation, “people watching.”
Communities, Real and Artificial
Alan Ehrenhalt makes a fascinating aside in The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. In discussing the residential revival of New York’s financial district, he asks, “This is neighborhood, then, but is it a community the way Sheffield [in Chicago] is, the way communities existed in the great European cities of a century ago?” His answer is thoughtful but inconclusive. For now, to expand the question, what might be meant by asking whether a place is a “real community”? Continue reading
Do Vacant Property Registries Work?
If density is on balance a good thing, then vacant properties are most likely not such a very good thing. Vacant properties are usually poorly maintained, unsecured, ugly, and dangerous. They may become neighborhood eyesores, fire hazards, havens for crime, or homes for squatters. And the longer a property remains vacant, the more costly it becomes to remediate it and the less likely it becomes that it will be redeployed to a productive use. Continue reading
An Inquiry Into Density
“Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They are proximity, density, closeness. They enable us to work and play together, and their success depends on the demand for physical connection.” Glaeser, Edward. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.
Consider this statement and its many variants: “With information travelling at the speed of light, physical distances shrink into insignificance.” But facts are obstinate things. In the United States, 81.6% of the population is classified as “urban” (subject to the uncertainty of that classification), while over the past five years, the annual rate of urbanization is 1.02%. Globally, 54% of the population lives in urban areas – a figure that is projected to grow to 66% by the year 2050. Why, when people, especially highly educated “creative class” workers, can choose to live anywhere, are they still moving to cities? Continue reading