Hacking for Housing: How open data and civic hacking creates wins for housing advocates


Krista Chan at Sunlight: “…Housing advocates have an essential role to play in protecting residents from the consequences of real estate speculation. But they’re often at a significant disadvantage; the real estate lobby has access to a wealth of data and technological expertise. Civic hackers and open data could play an essential role in leveling the playing field.

Civic hackers have facilitated wins for housing advocates by scraping data or submitting FOIA requests where data is not open and creating apps to help advocates gain insights that they can turn into action. 

Hackers at New York City’s Housing Data Coalition created a host of civic apps that identify problematic landlords by exposing owners behind shell companies, or flagging buildings where tenants are at risk of displacement. In a similar vein, Washington DC’s Housing Insights tool aggregates a wide variety of data to help advocates make decisions about affordable housing.

Barriers and opportunities

Today, the degree to which housing data exists, is openly available, and consistently reliable varies widely, even within cities themselves. Cities with robust communities of affordable housing advocacy groups may not be connected to people who can help open data and build usable tools. Even in cities with robust advocacy and civic tech communities, these groups may not know how to work together because of the significant institutional knowledge that’s required to understand how to best support housing advocacy efforts.

In cities where civic hackers have tried to create useful open housing data repositories, similar data cleaning processes have been replicated, such as record linkage of building owners or identification of rent-controlled units. Civic hackers need to take on these data cleaning and “extract, transform, load” (ETL) processes in order to work with the data itself, even if it’s openly available. The Housing Data Coalition has assembled NYC-DB, a tool which builds a postgres database containing a variety of housing related data pertaining to New York City, and Washington DC’s Housing Insights similarly ingests housing data into a postgres database and API for front-end access

Since these tools are open source, civic hackers in a multitude of cities can use existing work to develop their own, locally relevant tools to support local housing advocates….(More)”.

Making Smart Cities More Playable: Exploring Playable Cities


Book by Anton Nijholt: “This book explores the ways in which the broad range of technologies that make up the smart city infrastructure can be harnessed to incorporate more playfulness into the day-to-day activities that take place within smart cities, making them not only more efficient but also more enjoyable for the people who live and work within their confines. The book addresses various topics that will be of interest to playable cities stakeholders, including the human–computer interaction and game designer communities, computer scientists researching sensor and actuator technology in public spaces, urban designers, and (hopefully) urban policymakers….(More)”.

Gender gaps in urban mobility


Paper (preprint) by Laetitia Gauvin, Michele Tizzoni, Simone Piaggesi, Andrew Young, Natalia Adler, Stefaan Verhulst, Leo Ferres, and Ciro Cattuto: “The use of public transportation or simply moving about in streets are gendered issues. Women and girls often engage in multi-purpose, multi-stop trips in order to do household chores, work, and study (‘trip chaining’). Women-headed households are often more prominent in urban settings and they tend to work more in low-paid/informal jobs than men, with limited access to transportation subsidies. Here we present recent results on urban mobility from a gendered perspective by uniquely combining a wide range of datasets, including commercial sources of telecom and open data. We explored urban mobility of women and men in the greater metropolitan area of Santiago, Chile, by analyzing the mobility traces extracted from the Call Detail Records (CDRs) of a large cohort of anonymized mobile phone users over a period of 3 months. We find that, taking into account the differences in users’ calling behaviors, women move less than men, visiting less unique locations and distributing their time less equally among such locations. By mapping gender differences in mobility over the 52 comunas of Santiago, we find a higher mobility gap to be correlated with socio-economic indicators, such as a lower average income, and with the lack of public and private transportation options. Such results provide new insights for policymakers to design more gender inclusive transportation plans in the city of Santiago….(More)”.

Make FOIA Work


Make FOIA Work is about re-imagining journalism through design, participation and collaboration. Faculty, staff and students at Emerson College and the Engagement Lab staff worked alongside the Boston Institute of Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) and MuckRock, two independent and alternative news and information platforms and publishers, to produce a data-driven and engagement-based investigative reporting series that exposes corruption around the sales of guns in Massachusetts. Through design studios in participatory methods and data visualization, project participants created a participatory guide book for journalists, practitioners and community members on how to undertake participatory design projects with a focus on FOIA requests, community participation, and collaboration. The project also highlights the course syllabi in participatory design methods and data visualization….(More)”.

Open Urban Data and the Sustainable Development Goals


Conference Paper by Christine Meschede and Tobias Siebenlist: “Since the adoption of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 – an ambitious agenda to end poverty, combat environmental threats and ensure prosperity for everyone – some effort has been made regarding the adequate measuring of the progress on its targets. As the crucial point is the availability of sufficient, comparable information, open data can play a key role. The coverage of open data, i.e., data that is machine-readable, freely available and reusable for everyone, is assessed by several measurement tools. We propose the use of open governmental data to make the achievement of SDGs easy and transparent to measure. For this purpose, a mapping of the open data categories to the SDGs is presented. Further, we argue that the SDGs need to be tackled in particular at the city level. For analyzing the current applicability of open data for measuring progress on the SDGs, we provide a small-scale case study on German open data portals and the embedded data categories and datasets. The results suggest that further standardization is needed in order to be able to use open data for comparing cities and their progress towards the SDGs….(More)”.

Capacities for urban transformations governance and the case of New York City


Paper by Katharina Hölscher et al: “The narrative of urban sustainability transformations epitomises the hope that urban governance can create the conditions to plan and govern cities in a way that they contribute to local and global sustainability and resilience. So far, urban governance is not delivering: novel governance approaches are emerging in cities worldwide, yet are unable to transform conventional policymaking and planning to allow for innovative, co-beneficial and long-term solutions and actions to emerge and institutionalise. We present a capacities framework for urban transformations governance, starting from the need to fulfil distinct output functions (‘what needs to happen’) for mobilising and influencing urban transformation dynamics. The framework helps to diagnose and inform urban governance for responding to disturbances (stewarding capacity), phasing-out drivers of path-dependency (unlocking capacity), creating and embedding novelties (transformative capacity) and coordinating multi-actor processes (orchestrating capacity). Our case study of climate governance in New York City exemplifies the framework’s applicability and explanatory power to identify conditions and activities facilitating transformation (governance), and to reveal gaps and barriers of these vis-à-vis the existing governance regime. Our framework thereby functions as a tool to explore what new forms of urban transformation governance are emerging, how effective these are, and how to strengthen capacities….(More)”.

Study finds that a GPS outage would cost $1 billion per day


Eric Berger at Ars Technica: “….one of the most comprehensive studies on the subject has assessed the value of this GPS technology to the US economy and examined what effect a 30-day outage would have—whether it’s due to a severe space weather event or “nefarious activity by a bad actor.” The study was sponsored by the US government’s National Institutes of Standards and Technology and performed by a North Carolina-based research organization named RTI International.

Economic effect

As part of the analysis, researchers spoke to more than 200 experts in the use of GPS technology for various services, from agriculture to the positioning of offshore drilling rigs to location services for delivery drivers. (If they’d spoken to me, I’d have said the value of using GPS to navigate Los Angeles freeways and side streets was incalculable). The study covered a period from 1984, when the nascent GPS network was first opened to commercial use, through 2017. It found that GPS has generated an estimated $1.4 trillion in economic benefits during that time period.

The researchers found that the largest benefit, valued at $685.9 billion, came in the “telecommunications” category,  including improved reliability and bandwidth utilization for wireless networks. Telematics (efficiency gains, cost reductions, and environmental benefits through improved vehicle dispatch and navigation) ranked as the second most valuable category at $325 billion. Location-based services on smartphones was third, valued at $215 billion.

Notably, the value of GPS technology to the US economy is growing. According to the study, 90 percent of the technology’s financial impact has come since just 2010, or just 20 percent of the study period. Some sectors of the economy are only beginning to realize the value of GPS technology, or are identifying new uses for it, the report says, indicating that its value as a platform for innovation will continue to grow.

Outage impact

In the case of some adverse event leading to a widespread outage, the study estimates that the loss of GPS service would have a $1 billion per-day impact, although the authors acknowledge this is at best a rough estimate. It would likely be higher during the planting season of April and May, when farmers are highly reliant on GPS technology for information about their fields.

To assess the effect of an outage, the study looked at several different variables. Among them was “precision timing” that enables a number of wireless services, including the synchronization of traffic between carrier networks, wireless handoff between base stations, and billing management. Moreover, higher levels of precision timing enable higher bandwidth and provide access to more devices. (For example, the implementation of 4G LTE technology would have been impossible without GPS technology)….(More)”

Of Governance and Revenue: Participatory Institutions and Tax Compliance in Brazil


Paper by Michael Touchton, Brian Wampler and Tiago C. Peixoto: “Traditionally, governments seek to mobilize tax revenues by expanding their enforcement of existing tax regimes and facilitating tax payments. However, enforcement and facilitation can be costly and produce diminishing marginal returns if citizens are unwilling to pay their taxes. This paper addresses gaps in knowledge about tax compliance, by asking a basic question: what explains why citizens and businesses comply with tax rules? To answer this question, the paper shows how the voluntary adoption of two different types of participatory governance institutions influences municipal tax collection in Brazil. Municipalities that voluntarily adopt participatory institutions collect significantly higher levels of taxes than similar municipalities without these institutions. The paper provides evidence that moves scholarship on tax compliance beyond enforcement and facilitation paradigms, while offering a better assessment of the role of local democratic institutions for government performance and tax compliance….(More)”.

Information Sharing as a Dimension of Smartness: Understanding Benefits and Challenges in Two Megacities


Paper by J. Ramon Gil-Garcia, Theresa A. Pardo, and Manuel De Tuya: “Cities around the world are facing increasingly complex problems.

These problems frequently require collaboration and information sharing across agency boundaries.

In our view, information sharing can be seen as an important dimension of what is recently being called smartness in cities and enables the ability to improve decision making and day-to-day operations in urban settings. Unfortunately, what many city managers are learning is that there are important challenges to sharing information both within their city and with others.

Based on nonemergency service integration initiatives in New York City and Mexico City, this article examines important benefits from and challenges to information sharing in the context of what the participants characterize as smart city initiatives, particularly in large metropolitan areas.

The research question guiding this study is as follows: To what extent do previous findings about information sharing hold in the context of city initiatives, particularly in megacities?

The results provide evidence on the importance of some specific characteristics of cities and megalopolises and how they affect benefits and challenges of information sharing. For instance, cities seem to have more managerial flexibility than other jurisdictions such as state governments.

In addition, megalopolises have most of the necessary technical skills and financial resources needed for information sharing and, therefore, these challenges are not as relevant as in other local governments….(More)”.

How Organizations with Data and Technology Skills Can Play a Critical Role in the 2020 Census


Blog Post by Kathryn L.S. Pettit and Olivia Arena: “The 2020 Census is less than a year away, and it’s facing new challenges that could result in an inaccurate count. The proposed inclusion of a citizenship question, the lack of comprehensive and unified messaging, and the new internet-response option could worsen the undercount of vulnerable and marginalized communities and deprive these groups of critical resources.

The US Census Bureau aims to count every US resident. But some groups are more likely to be missed than others. Communities of color, immigrants, young children, renters, people experiencing homelessness, and people living in rural areas have long been undercounted in the census. Because the census count is used to apportion federal funding and draw legislative districts for political seats, an inaccurate count means that these populations receive less than their fair share of resources and representation.

Local governments and community-based organizations have begun forming Complete Count Committees, coalitions of trusted community voices established to encourage census responses, to achieve a more accurate count in 2020. Local organizations with data and technology skills—like civic tech groups, libraries, technology training organizations, and data intermediaries—can harness their expertise to help these coalitions achieve a complete count.

As the coordinator of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP), we are learning about 2020 Census mobilization in communities across the country. We have found that data and technology groups are natural partners in this work; they understand what is at risk in 2020, are embedded in communities as trusted data providers, and can amplify the importance of the census.

Threats to a complete count

The proposed citizenship question, currently being challenged in court, would likely suppress the count of immigrants and households in immigrant communities in the US. Though federal law prohibits the Census Bureau from disclosing individual-level data, even to other agencies, people may still be skeptical about the confidentiality of the data or generally distrust the government. Acknowledging these fears is important for organizations partnering in outreach to vulnerable communities.

Another potential hurdle is that, for the first time, the Census Bureau will encourage people to complete their census forms online (though answering by mail or phone will still be options). Though a high tech census could be more cost-effective, the digital divide compounded by the underfunding of the Census Bureau that limited initial testing of new methods and outreach could worsen the undercount….(More)”.