• Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Community

    Can Data Save a City or Its Mayor?

    By Matt Carmichael on February 25, 2015 at 10:00 am CST

    This week saw two major stories come out of Chicago. The first was a piece by The Guardian about a Chicago police “black site” where officials allegedly detained and questioned suspects, perhaps using excessive means, while depriving them of their civil rights. The second was the failure of the city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, to avoid a run-off in his bid for a second term.

    The city was somewhat distracted by the election (and the injuries to Bulls’ star Derrick Rose and Blackhawks’ star Patrick Kane), so the repercussions of the first story will continue to play out. But it caused my friend Daniel X. O’Neil, a pioneer in the open data movement, to voice a lingering doubt about the power and value of open data itself. He writes, “what hurts more than the facts of this particular blockbuster story is the gnawing feeling that my colleague Aaron Swartz was right: ‘transparency is bunk’ and reporting is where it’s at.”

    This is a chicken and egg problem. You can’t have good reporting without good information such as the open data movement gives us. Having the data, however, doesn’t mean we have enough reporters taking advantage of it. Newsrooms across the nation are shrinking (c.f. recently in Chicago the Sun-Times announced yet another round of layoffs as did Crain’s) leaving fewer people to dig into the data. Many journalists still don’t have the skills to really dive into this data and find the stories. I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with Chicago’s then-Chief Technology Officer, John Tolva. He said that one of his frustrations was that his department was working hard to open up the city’s data, but he was surprised how few people understood how to use it, and how reporters kept coming to him asking for analysis and explanations of what it all meant.

    So Dan’s right, reporting’s where it’s at. 

    Open data should go hand-in-hand with good reporting. One of the key reasons Mayor Emanuel is facing the run-off is due to his widely unpopular decision to close 50 public schools early in his tenure. Every report focused on how the closures “disproportionately” took place in neighborhoods that were predominantly African-American or Latino. Far fewer of the reports pointed out the Chicago Public School enrollment is roughly 90 percent African-American and Latino children. Fewer still looked at the Census data (the granddaddy of open data) and reported that between 2000 and 2010, there were more than 100,000 fewer African-American children in the city of Chicago compared with 20,000 fewer Caucasian children and just 9,000 fewer Latino children. The number of Asian-American children dropped by just 500. Looking at those figures, it’s hard to see how keeping the same number of schools with such a steep decline in potential students makes any sense at all. It’s also hard to see how the impact wouldn’t be greatest in African-American neighborhoods, where the population declines were most pronounced.

    It takes data, and it takes reporting.

    Open data should do more than inform the public, it should inform the government’s decision making, too. You see that in tools like See-Click-Fix, which allow citizens to help set government priorities. You see that in the examples in the The Responsive City, a book that features great success stories of Chicago’s open data – some featuring Dan O’Neil himself. You see it also in books like the Metropolitan Revolution in which Brookings’ Bruce Katz also praises Chicago and Mayor Emanuel for opening up the data and making steps toward a more transparent government.

    Granted, Mayor Emanuel’s police department has been accused of fudging the crime data, and his office has a troubled history of denying Freedom of Information Requests. Locally, Mayor Emanuel takes hits for the prevalence of red light and speed cameras, for dolling out tax breaks to businesses relocating here, for an expensive basketball stadium for which there is questionable need and, of course, for the crime rate. Some of these are things he controls, some are beyond his control or at least problems that are not totally solvable like crime and the proliferation of guns on our streets. 

    The key is that for our cities to prosper, improve and maximize their livability, we need the three legs of this stool. We need better data, we need a government willing to take that data and make better decisions, and we need good journalism and reporting to hold everyone accountable for the impacts of those decisions.

    In my next post, I’ll give a great example of how this works and how this can break down easily. 

    Dan O'Neil is also a prolific photographer, so I used one of his photos (available via Creative Commons) for this post. 

  • Community

    Welcome to the New Livability

    By Matt Carmichael on September 4, 2014 at 1:03 pm CDT

    We have a lot of exciting news to share.

  • Community

    The Have and Have-Nots of Walkable Urbanism

    June 26, 2014 at 5:40 am CDT

    Throughout U.S. history, we have had divides. Initially we had a lot of land to conquer, and we drew a line between settled and frontier. That gave way to urban versus rural. As we moved from an agrarian society to a mechanized one, the urban versus suburban divide became the key differentiator and has remained so. Some notable researchers, including Livability advisor Christopher Leinberger, are proposing a divide between Walkable Urban and Drivable Suburban. The trick is that Walkable Urban Places (WalkUPs, as he calls them) can and need to exist within our suburbs. His new research shows that these areas are not evenly spread through our largest metro areas and that the divide will increase in coming years.

    Most importantly, this research shows that there is pent-up demand for this kind of development as evidenced by the premium paid for properties in these areas. That makes a great case for more development – even in some of the most car-centric areas.

    The current ranking of Walkable Urban Places. The current ranking of Walkable Urban Places.

    The argument to add density to the suburbs isn’t a new one, but this study gives some good ammunition of the kind that developers and politicians love: economic incentive. For example:

    • Areas with more WalkUPs had a higher GDP per capita.
    • Residents in areas with more WalkUPs had a higher level of education. Whether that means more educated people move to or stay in places like this is hard to discern, but regardless, they’re there. If your business is looking for that kind of workforce, you’ll want to be there, too.
    • In the 30 largest metro areas, WalkUP office rents are a 74 percent premium over space in drivable suburbs.
    • Fifty-eight percent of WalkUPs are in the central city, while 42 percent are in the suburbs, according to the study. The office and retail space, however, is not so well divided. Eighty-two percent is in the WalkUPs.

    Given that, it’s especially interesting to look at the “future” ranking provided in the study. You see Chicago fall dramatically from No. 5 to No. 15. Miami, conversely, pops up from No. 23 to No. 4. Even Detroit moves from the bottom portion of the list (No. 22) up to No. 8.

    The projected ranking of Walkable Urban Places. The projected ranking of Walkable Urban Places.

    The key to Chicago and Detroit’s change seem to be in the suburbs. We’ve written about some projects in both of these cities that will help. But it clearly won’t be enough. Adding residential space in the downtown – as Chicago has done and as I saw last week in Syracuse – will help, too. But it won’t be enough, either. In a conference call announcing the findings, Mr. Leinberger said that it will take 20 to 30 years to catch up to the demand.

    He also points out something we’ve talked about before: Walkability and urban density (even in the suburbs) comes with a price premium, which leads to an affordability problem. What happens when desirable living and working conditions wind up pricing too many people out of the market and become a luxury item? How will that impact the fabric of these cities?

    One suggestion offered is to create more rentable space in existing places by allowing more flexibility in the laws. Currently it’s hard to rent out a spare bedroom or put an apartment over a garage as rentable space. Allowing these auxiliary spaces to go on the market would create affordable housing for those who live in them, but also help the owners better afford their own living spaces.

    However, it’s also hard not to come to the conclusion that if we’re not careful, walkability will become our new sprawl. We’ll replace one problem with a perhaps better, but not inherently different problem. It's going to take smart planning, cooperative governments and developers with their eyes on the big picture to keep our cities great places to live – for everyone.