Open Government Data – Measuring Urban America

Home Depot made national news when it opened its Mills Basin Brooklyn store in 2002. Its urban format partially reflected a new realization that, for city neighborhoods, urban income densities were a better measure of potential retail demand than the over-used measure of median income. The argument for measuring urban areas differently began in the late 1990s with research done by outfits such as MetroEdge, a subsidiary of ShoreBank Advisory Services in Chicago; and the national not-for-profit initiative Social Compact. I kicked off the Urban Markets Initiative (UMI) at Brookings with Pari Sabety by noting the importance to building healthy communities of increasing the quality and reliability of information for urban and inner city areas: Using Information to Drive Change: New Ways to Move Urban Markets (2004). There we point out that the relative homogeneity of rural and suburban areas makes them easier to measure than diverse urban landscapes. Cities tend to be “under-measured.”

Why? Characteristics of physical form contribute to the richness and hard-to-measure nature of cities. Housing stock is more irregular – boarding houses and smaller aged apartment buildings may have no individual mailboxes so that official address lists will miss occupants; garages with “in-law” apartment additions are often off-the-record. Mixed living spaces miss people or economic activity – live/work units (common ways by which old warehouses are re-purposed) are both a home and a business; home-based retail businesses are more common.

Our task at UMI was to address this “urban data shortage” problem primarily by focusing on making the case for better data from federal statistical agencies (although we had local initiatives as well). Why can’t economic data be made available at the city level, for example? What about a retail census that broke out cities from suburbs? Although we found our work challenging then, the situation for federal data recently looks even worse. Recent reports that data transparency initiatives at the federal level are to be severely curtailed are coupled with an attack on long-standing federal statistical initiatives (such as the American Community Survey) that produce critical economic and demographic data.

Here is the historical opportunity for the open government movement. Ten years ago open gov was in its infancy—Malamud’s “8 principles of Open Government Data” wasn’t published until 2007—now open data catalogs are appearing in cities across the US. What can’t be measured at the federal level, either because of a lack of political will or because of the inflexible nature of the federal statistical system, may be able to be found from data collected locally.

This is my hope for the Apps4MetroChicago competition. Not only the opportunity for fabulous apps, but apps that reveal the rich and diverse nature of the urban landscape. Measures of the local food environment that incorporate permits, licensing and inspections data as a way of tracking retail locations that otherwise would slip through the cracks. Put together building permit and occupancy data in a way that might be a leading indicator of economic activity. Show us hospital records in order to estimate the health care uninsured. Use 311 and crime data to describe neighborhoods – trendy, industrial, entertainment district, families.

In short, use government data to help us reveal the rich nature of urban areas.

About VL Carlson

Virginia Carlson is a data geek who believes that the right systems -physical and social - create optimal outcomes. She's been a professor, a researcher, a storyteller, a photographer and a architectural historian. Enraptured by travel.
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