In this episode of the 10 Blocks podcast, City Journal editor Brian Anderson interviews Nicole Gelinas, author of the recent City Journal article “The Fourth Urban Revolution,” about the role of big data in effective urban planning. 

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Big Data is changing life in cities for governments and citizens alike. In a previous episode of 10 Blocks we heard from journalist David Black about how sophisticated data analysis is helping the police to predict where crime is likely to occur. Additionally, we heard from Harvard Business School’s Mike Luca, who helps cities and companies work together using data to create better policies and better customer service experiences. There is no doubt that Big Data is shaping the way today’s cities run. Today on the 10 Blocks Podcast we take a broader look at how data shapes the modern urban environment. Joining us is City Journal contributing editor Nicole Gelinas, who is also the Searle Freedom Trust Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and a regular columnist for the New York Post. In “The Fourth Urban Revolution,” which can be found in the Spring 2016 issue of City Journal, Nicole gives a fascinating account of the history of Big Data in New York City as well as some thoughts on how it might continue to improve life in the city. Nicole Gelinas, thank you for joining us on 10 Blocks.

Nicole Gelinas: Hi, Brian. Thanks for having me again.

Brian Anderson: Now, in your piece you note that New York City has been a pioneer for decades in the use of data to improve the delivery of government services. Can you give our listeners a brief overview of that history?

Nicole Gelinas: Sure. We tend to think of the data revolution as new and what’s new is the sheer amount of data points that we have now and how easy it is to transmit them. I mean, taking pictures used to be something you’d save up for two rolls of film when you went on vacation and be very careful about which pictures you took because they would cost money and now you can take hundreds of pictures at an event in an hour and send them to everyone you know and think nothing of it. But we’ve long had this idea that we make policy through data, and New York has been a pioneer in that. If you go back to the 1970s, the era of Watergates and people really beginning to distrust their governments, New York public interest groups got the state to enact one of the nation’s first Freedom of Information laws, where journalists and regular citizens could go and petition their government and ask for information. So if you wanted to know how many environmental sites the city was monitoring for particular chemicals or how many traffic stops there were in a particular year, and so forth, you could go and ask for that data and use that data to write articles and formulate policy. And as technology has outpaced the law, New York has continued to try to make its government keep up with the law, so...

Brian Anderson: In terms of transparency.

Nicole Gelinas: Right. We got out first public access to databases back in the early 90s where people could start to access and analyze databases because they were starting to have the technology to do that. And then, under Mayor Bloomberg, we got the city’s first open data law where government agencies have to put certain data sets online without being asked, so you can go and look at 311 calls, and go look at information about taxi pickups, information about who was making noise complaints - all kinds of things, really. And so it’s an imperfect process. The government never wants to give information out but as long as people keep up and keep asking questions and keep forcing the government to do this, it works, I guess, as reasonably as it can.

Brian Anderson: How does Big Data become open data, and why is open data so beneficial, or at least potentially beneficial, to cities like New York?

Nicole Gelinas: Well, there are two things that make Big Data open data. First, the legal structure that we just talked about, and second is just the ability of people to use today’s technology to look at and analyze and then put out ideas about this data, and so now you have a generation of civic hackers, people at places like BetaNYC, Ben Wellington at I Quant NY. They can go out and look at these data sets that the city puts out and put out interesting information so people can make decisions based on this information. For example, just a few weeks ago, Ben Wellington, who runs the I Quant NY blog, he looked through all of this new data that the police department is now putting out and he said the most frequent time for robberies is in the afterschool hours, which makes sense. And that allows the public to see are the police doing what they need to do to make sure that the resources are on the streets when the number of people on the streets and potential victims is much, much greater with everyone on the trains going home from school and so forth. And so, things that we would have had to spend months trying to get the data from these agencies, trying to parse it, and then maybe getting it out to a couple of newspapers and having some people look at it. You can put out, in a quick graph, people look at it on Twitter, on Facebook, on elsewhere, and get some interesting information about their city.

Brian Anderson: The NYPD use data to shift its focus in policing, from responding to crime to trying to prevent it. Does that experience hold lessons for other policy [inaudible]?

Nicole Gelinas: Sure. For example, we’ve been doing this in trying to manage traffic safety. Going back, again, you know, this is a place where it’s gotten more attention in recent years with Bloomberg’s Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, using intersection points and data points of where crashes occur, where people are most likely to be injured or killed in a car crash, to calm those intersections so that you have lower speeds, less crashes at these intersections. But even going back two decades outside of government groups, like transportation alternatives, were asking for this data and putting out maps of where people were getting in car crashes. I mean, you can remember the Boulevard of Death, Queens Boulevard, going back to the Giuliani years, where people were using data to really push their government to make changes on the streets, and so certainly traffic management but even things like vending carts on the streets. We could be using data much, much better to address quality of life issues, where the carts are parked, are they putting our grease and smoke, and so forth. And even using data on tracking people’s complaints on things that may not be life or death. Like, there’s a person next door renting out his apartment as an illegal hotel - we’re not using the data points well enough yet to do enforcement where you’ve got so many complaints from this building so the enforcement should be targeted here, but we’re starting to see the potential of how we can do this across government.

Brian Anderson: Might the availability of all of this data also be useful to businesses in the city?

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, you look at some of the apps that have started to use the data that the city puts out to give or sell services to the city’s small businesses. Aileen Gemma Smith, after Superstorm Sandy, she went around Staten Island where she is from and other parts of the city, and she found that business owners were having trouble figuring out when - when are they going to start picking up the garbage again after the storm, when are people going to come out and inspect this block and get the power back on and so forth, and so she launched this app, Mind My Business, that even when you’re not in a disaster time, a store owner can look and put in his address and find out this street is going to be closed next week for repair work, or my subway stop is going to be closed because they are going to be fixing up the stairs, and so maybe I’ll have less foot traffic, or the person who owned this store before me, he used to get tickets all the time for not sweeping the sidewalk and so I’d better be careful about those things. So just trying to give people the information that they need about their government so they don’t have to go through all of the information that they don’t need as a good opportunity for private sector entrepreneurs.

Brian Anderson: You suggest in your article that cities often don’t do what the data suggest they should do. Can you expand on that point and what examples have you seen in New York and other cities?

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, you know, there can be maybe this tendency to think data is going to solve all of our problems. If we just know what the right information is, the government will do the right thing with that information. But we don’t necessarily see that that happens. At some point Big Data meets big politics and big politics can still easily win. If you look at just two examples, people who live on - along Manhattan’s riverfronts have been complaining for years and years about the increasing number of helicopter tours, and, you know, the helicopters take off, they do a quick tour, they come back, but it’s constant, constant noise for people who live on the waterfront. And they went, they did a Freedom of Information request, they found out how much more frequently these helicopters take off compared to five years ago or ten years ago, they went to the government and presented this information, but the de Blasio administration, which has happened to take money from the lobbyists for these tour groups, decided to allow these helicopter tours to continue to operate. And we see that in other places, too, where people on 57th Street are worried about super tall, 100-story plus towers blocking out the light in Central Park. They even amass data about shadows and what times of day these shadows will be in the park, and so forth. The data part is very, very clear. The city council and the mayor have had this data for years but they haven’t even started studying the issue yet, so sometimes the facts are not enough - you’ve still got to have some kind of old-fashioned political and public coalition to go up against the big politics coalition of the powerful special interests.

Brian Anderson: For more background on today’s episode, find Nicole Gelinas’s City Journal article from our Spring issue, “The Fourth Urban Revolution,” on our website, Nicole Gelinas is also on Twitter, @NicoleGelinas, and you can follow us @CityJournal. We would love to hear your comments about today’s episode on Twitter with the hash tag #10Blocks. Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. Thanks for listening, and thank you again, Nicole, for joining us.

Nicole Gelinas: Thank you, Brian.

Photo: Easyturn / iStock

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