Big Data to the Rescue for Cities?

4.5.2013 | Back in January, we asked the question, Can “big data” help design and build better cities? A lot of people thought so. More recently, people have been asking: Can big data improve the cities that already exist? The answer seems to be yes…but.

New York Times reporter Alan Feuer noted in “The Mayor’s Geek Squad,” New York City is using big data to make city services more efficient and transparent and to find new ways to serve residents by tracing the daily data breadcrumbs they and the City leave behind as they eat, complain, drive, walk, turn down the thermostat, throw out the garbage, park the car, swipe their transit cards, or any of the other mindless, quotidian acts.

With an evangelical zeal, “Information activists” as they’re called, tick off the ways that big data can make government, and governing, better. A small team of data wonks working in a tiny office in Manhattan, for example, is crunching the numbers from the 100,000 weekly parking tickets given out, the 26,231 tons of paper collected by the Sanitation Department each month, the kilowatts of electricity consumed by ZIP code, the 1,225 wi-fi hot spots in the five boroughs, and even the average time it takes the NYPD to respond to a call (9 minutes). They’re finding patterns and habits and with that information, they’re finding ways to redesign services to save money and work smarter.

With the data they can track commuting habits to find bottlenecks and other issues. They can monitor parking tickets to figure out traffic flow. They can identify dangerous cross-walks (or mid-streets in the case of New Yorkers). They can monitor children’s test scores to track progress (or not) by neighborhood block. They even found restaurants that were dumping grease into the city sewers, causing countless headaches and stopped up sinks.  

“I think of us as the Get Stuff Done Folks,” the leader of the team told the Times. “All we do is take and process massive amounts of information and use it to do things more effectively.”

The New York City team is not the only one crunching numbers. A group in Boston, the Design Action Research for Government (DARG) team is also using big data to bring citizens closer to their government. As they said at a recent conference, 

“We want to rebuild the personal bridge between city government and residents. We want to live up to the ideal of Jan Jacobs when she said, ‘Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.’”

See our January post for several other examples.

I’m impressed with the possibilities for improving housing, especially for low-income families with children. Housing quality—and to a lesser extent housing stability and affordability—matter to children’s well-being. Researchers, for example, have found that substandard housing—exposed wiring, peeling lead paint, rodent infestation, big swings in temperature, or constant dampness—is associated with cognitive deficits in young children. A forthcoming study finds that children in poorer quality homes had lower average reading and math skills.  Other aspects of chaotic and poor-quality housing, such as noise, pollution, and overcrowding, are thought to undermine behavioral as well as cognitive functioning.

But while code and zoning regulations are on the books to keep homes safe and healthy, they’re often overlooked or not regularly enforced. It’s often difficult for city inspectors to keep up with the complaints, when and if the complaints even make it to their office.

Data to the rescue. By combining legal filings and other data, analysts can help steer overburdened housing inspectors directly to the most egregious buildings. Teams can use utilities data to detect in real time when a building’s heat or lights are out.  They can tap archives of data with information on boilers and sprinkler systems, and logs of the complaints about roaches or other hazards.

One tool in development, HousingCheckup, can access a residence’s full health and safety history, including landlord information, current code violations, and past health and safety inspections.

As the website says:

HousingCheckup will be a set of web and mobile applications that aggregates regulatory and legal data from various public agencies, allowing users to access the complete “housing health history” for either a property or a landlord. It will bring together multiple data sources in one interface, while helping to establish a single open data standard for residential health and safety data for cities across the U.S.”

A $550,000 grant from the Knight Foundation will fund its development in three cities, starting in Chicago. The other two cities will be chosen from Seattle, Vancouver, Boston, Philadelphia, Omaha, or Albuquerque,

Not all are so enamored, however. Civil libertarians are rightly worried that the same data used for good can be used for bad. (Orwell was ahead of the game here with his thoughtcrimes.) And so much surveillance, even if outwardly benign, is just, well, creepy.

Data skeptic Evgeny Morozov worries that all of this “smart data” might lull us into thinking it’s making a difference when what we really should be doing is changing the system.

He also worries that we’ll stop asking why and be happy with just “what.”

“Many trendy technologies can not only hinder needed reforms but actually also entrench social iniquities. Consider the current enthusiasm for Big Data, with its ability to yield powerful insights based on correlations alone. According to one recent tome on the subject, once we fully embrace Big Data, “society will need to shed some of its obsession for causality in exchange for simple correlations: not knowing why but only what.

Smart technology, thanks to its ubiquity and affordability, offers us the cheapest — and trendiest — fix. But the gleaming aura of disruption-talk that often accompanies such fixes masks their underlying conservatism. Technological innovation does not guarantee political innovation; at times, it might even impede it. The task ahead is to prevent our imagination from being incarcerated by smart technologies.”

What do you think? (or do they already know?).

photo credit: Matthew Igram, “Gigaom”

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