Map: Midtown or Cass Corridor? Responses from the streets of Detroit

DETROITography

midcassDuring the Data, Mapping, and Research Justice workshop offered in August, participants conducted their own data collection based on shared research questions about the Cass Corridor. One question in particular that was brought up was what different people called the area: Cass Corridor or Midtown.

In all 30 people were rapidly interviewed along Cass Avenue, 2nd, and Third Street. Sometimes the workshop participants’ data collection clipboards made people wary, but often the clipboards invited more questions making it easy to engage people on the street, at restaurants, and waiting for the bus. The participants didn’t make it further than Peterboro Street due to time limits in the data collection.

Cass Corridor 11
Both 3
Midtown 16

Midtown was the more commonly referenced placename, but overall the data gave a fairly even representation of the area. If anything the responses collected from people shows the well documented debate over…

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giving data empathy

Originally posted on DETROITography.com

I am constantly thinking about how to make maps and data more focused on people, their stories, and the impacts that those numbers represent. It is a constant battle working with data and numbers every day and one that is most often overlooked by organizations that are focused on utilizing big data and attempting to turn a city around. Earlier this year I spoke to a group of public administration and policy students on Data and Detroit: The Need for People Centered Innovation. This is the content of a recent talk that I gave at the launch of Open Data Windsor-Essex.

Detroit has recently become overwhelmed with people interested in its problems and the data that accompanies those problems: $18 billion in debt; 380,032 blighted properties; 70,500 foreclosures; 8,000 occupied homes headed to the property auction, evictions imminent.

big big big

Big numbers, big data, and big problems.

There is a growing set of psychological research that demonstrates how big data is dehumanizing: companies hide behind algorithms, numbers associated with mass atrocities don’t spur action, and we have become detached from the people who represent those numbers.

Open data is a critical movement that is a must-have for anyone who hopes to impact people’s lives with data, the next step of that movement is to join data with empathy for people-centered innovation.

“open civic data isn’t just nice to have, it is a must have.”

  • Beth Niblock, City of Detroit CIO (Techonomy Detroit 2015)

Detroit’s bankruptcy, warranted or not, threw Detroit’s data in full view of the national media. Where did the bulk of the deficit come from? Where were the biggest cuts going to happen? How many retirees would lose their pensions? How many people don’t pay their taxes? How many overdue bills does Detroit have?

Once the media jumped on the Detroit bankruptcy wagon, the related problems began cascading through the headlines. At the fore was Detroit’s “Hurricane without Water” – a man made crisis of epic proportions, the Wayne County Property Auction. Year after year the county auctions homes the majority of which fail to be paid for and thus return to the auction in following years. It actually cost the county more money to run the auction than the revenue that it generates. That all goes without mentioning the thousands of Detroit residents who face potential eviction from their homes as a result of subprime lending, improper management, worthless landlords, or compounding issues from Detroit’s history of mismanagement.

It is fairly easy to find data about Detroit and create seemingly beautiful visualizations of its problems, but the data in and of itself doesn’t tell a story and doesn’t give full context as to how these big problems impact people.

data ≠ solution

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Some have tried to say that Detroit has been operating from an information deficit, however I would argue that the main problem was that no one was utilizing or analyzing the data that existed, which in many cases meant that the data wasn’t even being collected. Those hoping to create the solutions weren’t using all of the available tools.

Simply beginning to collect that data and share it on an open platform is an important step, but is not a solution in and of itself. Open data is a baby step among many as we move towards more accountability in government, non-profits, and other sectors.

Detroit’s water crisis is a perfect example of the downfall of data. The city knew that it had 150,000 outstanding water bills that totaled over $118 million. The city quickly developed a plan, hired a contractor, and began shutting off people’s water for non-payment. The first round of shutoffs started without any notice or communication. Some people who had even kept up their water bills faced shutoffs because the contractors were just shutting off entire streets.

After national and international backlash the city attempted to better communicate the problem, but again largely failed as water affordability was still non-existent. Overall, 25,000 people signed up for water payment plans, but due to the continued unaffordability only about 300 remained active.

In a city where there is 20% unemployment, 40% living below the poverty line, and a 50% jobless rate – I’d really like to know what the City of Detroit thought was going to happen. Punitive measures against the poor represent the greatest failure of a city and the misuse of readily available data. If you can fund contractors to shut off water, then you can fund canvassers to go door-to-door with information about assistance programs, etc.

What are the people’s needs (user needs)? An empathetic service would ground itself in the concrete needs of concrete people. Lauren Hood at Techonomy 2015 reminded the audience full of tech leaders, startup CEOs, and other innovators that they can’t hope to impact Detroit by talking about tech without the people who would most benefit from those innovations.

“There’s no one here that actually represents the people we are trying to impact.”

  • Lauren Hood, Director Live6 (Techonomy Detroit 2015)

We’ve come to think that the next app, data aggregator, or web map (line up the buzzwords: big data, information age, government-as-a-platform, transparency, crowdfunding, open data, civic tech) will change the world – but it is people who change the world with data, not vice versa. We must learn to prioritize people and their needs as we push open data. Data is often about fast responses and short timeframes for launch. Prioritizing people takes more effort and more time, but we must refocus or we will be lost among the tabular data.

numbers don’t motivate

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In 2007, I was engaged in efforts to raise awareness about the genocide in Darfur. It was easy to get people involved on college campuses for a while, but issue fatigue quickly took hold.

There were 3 million people displaced; 300,000 killed – This became a common theme in my undergraduate studies in international relations. I was regularly engaged with the work of international nonprofits and NGOs, many of which had mastered the art of fundraising based on a single tragic picture rather than big numbers. Constantly listing the 6 to 7 figure numbers associated with tragedy quickly wears down any personal or institutional resolve, but that doesn’t mean we ignore the numbers.

If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

  • Mother Theresa

Big numbers don’t motivate action, they have the completely opposite effect. We become “numbed by numbers.” The recent New York Times piece on “How Syrians Are Dying” is a good example with one person representing one pixelated dot on the screen.

a single man killed is a misfortune, a million is a statistic.

  • Frenchman, not Stalin (qtd. by Charles J. Rolo, The Atlantic Bookshelf)

The big numbers that we have in Detroit continue to build and are constantly repeated, but not much has changed (i.e. foreclosure crisis). Thinking about the “big numbers numbing effect,” it is no wonder that we have gotten lost along the way especially as leadership pushes “revitalization” often without engaging or asking people what they need in their neighborhood.

giving data empathy

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Nothing is more important than giving data context. Spreadsheets are great for compiling, but not very helpful in understanding data or being persuaded by it. The majority of data that we see isn’t shared in raw form for that very reason. We often see data in dashboards, infographics, and other visuals.

“a picture is worth 1,000 data points”

Typical economic theory relies on the assumption that humans are inherently logical decision-makers, but the reality is that we are more strongly influenced by emotion resulting in reflexive responses. Thankfully this often helps us be empathetic and act against our self-interest in order to help others.

As much as compiling databases is the current norm, it is beyond critical that we find a way to show the faces behind the numbers. The following are some examples of storytelling (with or without data) that could be examples moving forward where data and stories can work together to give a more full picture of a problem.

Two-thirds of Detroit residents have access to a car, but that data from the Census doesn’t encompass the difficulties associated with car ownership, insurance, maintenance, regularity of use, etc. It is no mystery that transportation in Detroit is in need of significant improvement. This most often comes in to play when discussing access to jobs, which are concentrated in suburbs without public transit. The highest estimates put Detroit’s jobless rate at 50% with 40% of people living below the poverty line.

Roughly 300,000 people in Detroit could be jobless, yet the story of “the walking man” captured the attention of thousands of people. The walking man, James Robertson, lived in Detroit and worked at a suburban factory. He took the bus where it was available, but ended up with a 21 mile roundtrip walk to get to work. The power of his story raised $350,000 and a new $35,000 car.

He noted that the money should go to the transit department, feared for his safety, and ended up moving to a new home in the suburbs. It wasn’t the big numbers that motivated people to act, but one person’s story.

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Because Someone Lives Here

Tax foreclosure is an entire industry of big data, big numbers that often don’t reflect life stories.

This year the Wayne County Treasurer identified 61,912 properties in Detroit for foreclosure in 2015. Loveland Technologies found that 35,669 of these properties (63%). People live here. Simply looking at the data with the enormous number of foreclosures or the amount of taxes due to the city is not enough.

Motor City Mapping: Tax Foreclosure Survey

The partner groups working on the Motor City Mapping project worked together to talk to 71% of all of the 7,725 people who came to Cobo Center for the foreclosure “show cause” hearings. After completing their very data heavy parcel mapping and property categorization, they sought out data to humanize the tax foreclosure issue. They found that 83% of people were home owners and 88% of people wanted to be able to stay in their homes. By taking the time to answer questions, offer coffee and snack, or just be a listening ear – people were able to be placed at the center of a massive data effort. There need to be more of these types of mixed approaches and they need to be planned from the beginning.

The latest celebrity of urban theory, Richard Florida, who has plugged his controversial “creative class” as the savior of rustbelt urban cores has also noted that people must be the focus of our work in cities.

We can confer subsidies on places to improve their infrastructure, universities, and core institutions, or quality of life, but at the end of the day, people — not industries or even places — should be our biggest concern.

  • Richard Florida

If we aren’t using data to improve the lives of people then we are doing it all wrong.

conclusions

  • data is a critical tool for making change and impact
  • big numbers demonstrate size of problem, but not context or motivation
  • we must utilize a mixed methods approach with both numerical data and human stories

The Future Geographers of Detroit Haven’t Yet Made a Map

DETROITography

In May, I had the honor and privilege to collaborate with the Detroit Future Schools program at the Boggs School to present a series of activities about data visualization. Our main goal was to visualize and understand patterns and relationships.

I ran the mapping activity where 2nd and 3rd graders identified where they lived, how far that was from school, and if they had any classmates who lived nearby. Many of the students didn’t realize they had a classmate who lived very close or similarly, how far some of their classmates lived from the school.

My favorite response to the map was:

“That doesn’t even look like Detroit.”

It is all too easy to get wrapped up in data, boundary lines, and “accurate” depictions of reality. Children can quickly…

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Map: Children’s Neighborhoods in Detroit

DETROITography

children-nhoods

When the Skillman Foundation launched the “Good Neighborhoods” Initiative in 2006 they focused on the areas of Detroit that had high numbers of children and high rates of poverty. I assume that they utilized 2000 Census data and wanted to check if there was any significant shift. While I run a test of statistical significance of Detroit’s child population, it is a very simple analysis to see that there are still large populations of children in the “good neighborhoods.” The Far Eastside and University District areas are the only that appear to have high numbers of children that are not within a Skillman Good Neighborhood.

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Map: Detroit’s Ubiquitous Places – Church and Liquor

DETROITography

Inspired by Nathan Yau’s work at FlowingData on pizza place geography and grocery store geography, I wanted to see how Detroit’s ubiquitous locations compared. Driving along Van Dyke where there was church after church (many abandoned) interspersed with liquor stores gave me the idea of examining which type of location dominated Detroit’s landscape.

church_liquor_dotIt takes forever to scrape the Michigan Liquor Control Commission (MLCC) website for active liquor licenses, so I relied on a 2012 dataset that I generated a while back. I then utilized data from Data Driven Detroit with Churches from 2011. The data is not perfect, but unless you have someone actively monitoring every liquor license and every church there is going to be significant change. Notably, the number of liquor licenses have been decreasing since 2009. The next step was to set up a grid that was generally half a square mile squares.

church_gridThere are…

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State of Detroit – Detroit’s Food Landscape

DETROITography

IMG_7920The team at the Chicago Design Museum approached me to contribute some maps and data visualizations to their upcoming “State of Detroit” exhibit. It grew into a collaboration that built off of my research focus on food access in Detroit while also addressing some of the “Detroit is Empty” misconceptions.

IMG_7919The installation has a cool sliding feature so you can view different map layers together.

Visit the exhibit from now until August 30th, 2015. More. . .

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Beijing and the Great Wall Adventure

Eight Twelve Eleven

China!

The mass of people that represents China was no more evident than when we arrived at the gates to the Forbidden City. We encountered many Chinese tourists while in Taiwan, but nothing prepared us for the masses that visit China’s capital city, including the short elderly women who attempt to clothesline you (ask Nichole). The pushing and pressing of the crowds were sometimes too much, giving a whole new meaning to breath-taking.

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Ancient History!

I can’t even tell you how many ancient and amazing temples we visited in both Taiwan and China. Most of our time in China was spent walking between various ancient structures: Forbidden City (13 miles walked), Temple of Heaven (15.5 miles walked), Summer Palace, Drum and Bell Tower, etc.

IMG_3824DSCF6776IMG_3727Nichole conferred with Confucius. She is now overflowing with wisdom.

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Communism!

From the cold, gray heart of communism we snapped a great selfie with Mao’s portrait…

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Map: Can Detroit Really Be Compared to Any Other City?

DETROITography

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Can Detroit really be compared to any other city? No doubt everyone has tried comparing crime rates, economy, and poverty levels in Detroit with other troubled cities. A few groups have even tried fitting different city land areas into Detroit’s 139 square (land) miles. It always seems that Detroit has too much or too little of something for a city to city comparison to make much sense. Rob Linn had similar thoughts and instead of comparing land area or other commonly compared attributes he analyzed infrastructure density (feet of street per resident) as a method to debate the misguided “rightsizing” push. Rob found that Detroit had a high rate of “feet of street per resident” which caused some areas of the city to appear more vacant when in reality they had healthier infrastructure density.

The 2010 Census population for Detroit was 713,777, closer to San Francisco’s. Imagine San Francisco’s southern edge…

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Taiwan Teddy Tourism

Eight Twelve Eleven

Obviously Nichole and I love international travel. This is our latest international adventure.

Nichole had been very young the first time she visited Taiwan and I had never traveled anywhere in Asia, so we planned a trip, packed our bags, and prepared for a new experience. My wife’s uncle, Todd, studied Chinese in college and ended up completing a year abroad in Taiwan where he fell in love with his wife, Jackie. They have two awesome boys, Austin and Colin. We couldn’t have asked for better hosts and tour guides throughout our trip!

The flight to China I think is the longest that I have ever flown. We took the cost saving route and had an extra long layover (8 hours) in Houston. Nichole slept a lot (read: the entire flight) and I watched all the movies from the past year that I hadn’t seen. We finally landed in Beijing…

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