Map: What is Greater Downtown Detroit?

DETROITography

greaterdowntown

This is somewhat of the same old story where different groups of people with a lot of money don’t agree on what boundaries matter.The question is really less: “what is Greater Downtown” and really more “What will Greater Downtown become?”

Downtown

There have been a slew of recent articles noting the growth and expansion of Detroit’s “heart.” Whatever that means. Bedrock Real Estate and Rock Ventures have pushed the Quicken Loans Downtown plan with Capital Park quickly being renovated, assumedly with the Woodward Corridor being next (M1 streetcar). Dan Gilbert has said that its time to start going vertical Downtown before office space runs out and seems to have firm plans to build skyward on the old Hudson’s site.

Midtown

Always in the news for the events, cultural attractions, and new happenings, Midtown doesn’t have as much new development left except around the edges. There are a handful…

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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

detroit: black problems, white solutions

 det-race-equity6

Updates

Last updated 03/19/15:

  • Jon Chezick of D:hive BUILD Institute has graduated 400 from their program (56% black, 32% are white) via Deadline Detroit
  • Matthew Clayson, Director of Detroit Creative Corridor Center has had 70 founders, 42 white (60%); 23 African American (33%); 2 Asian American (3%); 2 Arab American (3%); 1 Latino (1%) via Deadline Detroit
  • Meeting scheduled with Graig Donnelly, Director of WSU Detroit Revitalization Fellows, “the stats for our program look right about at what you said.”
  • Panel and meeting scheduled with Challenge Detroit, Dierdre Groves and Shelley Danner
  • Contacted by ProsperUS: “About 90% of our participants are minorities, and over 80% are African American. We have trained 204 people in 5 Detroit neighborhoods:  Southwest, Lower East Side, Northend/Woodward Central, Cody Rouge (over by Warrendale), and Grandmont Rosedale.”
  • Contacted by Skillman Foundation for an interview in their Annual Report
  • Response from Kresge Foundation Communications Director, Cynthia Shaw: “Kresge is a national foundation with the goal of expanding opportunities for low-income people in America’s cities. That goal drives our grant-making and social investing. We have a dedicated Detroit program because Detroit is our home town. So, we take notice of data like that produced by Mr. Hill (and others).” via Michigan Citizen
  • Invited to facilitate at Youth Civil Rights Conference with the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at WSU
  • Contacted by W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Detroit Office
  • Republished in Infinite Mile online magazine, Issue 11, November 2014
  • Data and research republished in column by Nolan Finley in the Detroit News

Introduction

There are countless reports, maps, and statistics that demonstrate Detroit’s population changes over the years as well as the city’s decline. What is often overlooked in these figures are the social inequalities that fueled Detroit’s continued racial inequity. Structural racism is not easy to explain in a sound bite, but it has kept the scales tipped against Detroit’s black population for the last century. The effects of structural racism can be seen in the decades of black Detroiters being relegated to lower end jobs, rarely being promoted, being the first to be laid off, and being targeted for subprime mortgages.

Detroit’s revitalization is completely one-sided. The surge in investment in this majority black city is not going to black residents. I began noticing a troubling trend. First, at Whole Foods one out of the ten featured suppliers were black. Then again when the 2013 Detroit Design Festival interviewed designers and one out of eight were black. A recent United Way campaign featured eight Detroit leaders and only two were black. I could only wonder why these revitalization efforts were so lopsided. Finally, I couldn’t help but cringe at TEDxDetroit 2013 where 80% of attendees were white coming up with “solutions” for Detroit, an 83% black city. To top it off, Wayne State University’s student population doesn’t even reflect the city with almost 50% white students and 20% black with only 9% of black students graduating in 4 years.

I’m not alone in my concerns either. There is overwhelming evidence that our cities are becoming more segregated and unequal. Not to mention the racist mortgage lending practices of our country’s largest banks decimating black home ownership in major cities, specifically in Detroit. One journalist has asked “Is there room for Black people in the new Detroit” and others have lamented “Detroit doesn’t need hipsters to survive, it needs Black people.” The New York Times received a lot of push back after a travel piece only featured White-owned businesses in Corktown which then brought out a counter article, “Black-owned businesses are quietly fueling Detroit’s resurgence, but no one’s talking about it.” Aaron Foley recently wrote an excellent piece for Bridge magazine, saying:

“When “new” is basically used as code for “white” in a city where the “old” is “black,” it can drive someone like me [a black person in Detroit] to think they’re obsolete.” – Aaron Foley

There is a very real concern over the shifting interests and populations within Detroit where the benefits of gentrification do not trickle down, but rather force more hardship on those who cannot pay to play. Increased property values don’t solve poverty or crime, they just make poverty and crime more concentrated.

Last year, I began attempting to track and quantify the issue within Detroit’s revitalization as it relates to racial inequity. After working for 3 years with families across Detroit, I couldn’t help notice the absence of long-time Detroiters in development discussions, funding proposals, and the new “benefits” of a growing Detroit.

The title of this post, Black Problems, White Solutions, is a reflection that in Detroit problems are seen as being caused by black people, but the solutions are being powered by white people, neither of which are true.

Methods

My first challenge was that there is no demographic data (race, gender, age) published by small start-ups or even large corporations, or nonprofits. This meant that I would need to find the data myself. How could one white male possibly determine the race of hundreds of individuals involved in Detroit’s revitalization? short answer: I can’t.

My next challenge was that I had to construct ideas about race in order to categorize individuals. I was extremely hesitant because I know that race is socially constructed, that individuals self-identify in very different ways, and that identity can and does change over time. It is important to note that discrimination affects minorities no matter how one self-identifies. Over a period of July – August 2014, I combed the websites of Detroit companies and start-ups for information about their staff. I, obviously, had to base my categorizations on my own assumptions and perceptions of race. I pulled headshots from individual biographies posted publicly on fellowship programs, academic profiles, and many “About” pages. All this data was then compiled into the database that I later analyzed.

My analysis brought to mind the PBS project where user can sort photos of individuals by “race” where the main takeaway was:

“Classifying them [headshots] into groups is a subjective process, influenced by cultural ideas and political priorities.”

The article “Stereotypes drive perceptions of race” demonstrated that changes in racial categories “were driven by changes in the people’s life circumstances and common racial stereotypes.” There is also evidence that Latino individuals often choose to check the “White” box on the Census form as a sign of status. There is a similar issue where “Arab” populations are lumped into the “White” category by the Census Bureau. Our official systems to categorize race are both flawed and inadequate.

Note: “American Indian” was excluded even though there were around 2,500 individuals living in Detroit from the 2010 Census, the American Indian population makes up less than 0.5% of the total Detroit population, but also bore the brunt of early slavery in Detroit.

Results

What I found, unfortunately, confirmed what I had been seeing. Detroit’s revitalization is made up of a majority of white people. That isn’t to say that Detroit’s black population isn’t contributing anything to revitalization, rather it suggests that there is a deliberate racially unequal distribution of support and funding. In total 818 individuals were identified from fellowship programs, business incubators, universities, foundations, and other “innovation” programs.

Across all of the programs 69.2% of individuals were classified as White and only 23.7% as Black (1.6% Latino, 4.8% Asian, 0.7% Arab). Looking at this new data, it is clear that there is a serious imbalance of both opportunity and outcomes in Detroit.

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The majority of programs and institutions that were checked were grossly out of balance in terms of racial equity. The only program that had less than 50% white individuals was the D:hive BUILD small business incubator. The Urban Innovation Exchange featured profiles also came close, but tended to feature 50% white individuals and 50% of all other races. The Wayne County Community College District notable had the most black Presidents and Vice Presidents.

Those who hold the decision-making power with private funds, institutions of higher learning, and foundations support members of their own race rather than the majority race of the residents of Detroit.

Note: The degree to which other minority groups besides “black” are under-represented is also a compelling result that warrants further investigation.

Conclusion

In many ways Detroit has become the national test case for various issues: municipal pension issues, economic decline and resurgence, as well as monetizing or privatizing city services. There is potential for Detroit to become the test case for racial equity in urban centers. Detroit is at the very beginning of its efforts to revitalize and reinvest. During this period it is critical to ensure there is a structure that promotes equity in training, hiring, bidding, and selecting individuals who are the city’s present and will be it’s future. This is the critical moment where Detroit should try to lift all residents and not just those who can drop multi-millions for an expressway ramp or swoon decision-makers with a new stadium plan.

Mayor Duggan has said that every neighborhood has a future, but does every neighbor have a future in Detroit?

Detroit can build itself to be the city that prioritizes its people first by going beyond “community engagement.” If the city pushes for a strong community based redevelopment model from the bottom-up it could allow for a more racially equitable path forward. The city and its various supporters need to both ask Detroiters what they want to see in their communities and give them the tools, training, and support to make it happen. There is no reason that community development can’t also lead to citywide revitalization.

Thanks to the many people who gave me comments and feedback throughout the process of putting this together.