Big Data Comes To Boston’s Neighborhoods

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(Source: Boston Area Research Initiative)
(Source: Boston Area Research Initiative)

In the spring of 1982, social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling published a seminal article in The Atlantic Monthly titled “Broken Windows.”

The piece focused public attention on a long-simmering theory in urban sociology: that broken windows, graffiti and other signs of neighborhood decay are correlated with — and may even help cause — some of the biggest problems in America’s cities.

Wilson and Kelling focused on the link to crime, in particular; an abandoned car, they argued, signals that illicit behavior is acceptable on a given block.

But the literature has ballooned in recent years, exploring links to depression, cardiovascular disease and other public health concerns. One prominent paper in the field: “Broken windows and the risk of gonorrhea.”

Some researchers have poked holes in the theory — arguing that broken widows, known in academic circles as “physical disorder,” are more symptom than cause. But there is no disputing the idea’s influence: it’s inspired reams of research and shaped big city policing from New York to Los Angeles.

The trouble for researchers, policymakers and community activists is there has been no practical way to track the spread of neighborhood dysfunction in a major American city over time.

Researchers cataloguing physical disorder in Chicago in 1995 sent a sport utility vehicle down thousands of city streets at five miles per hour, a pair of video cameras and note takers documenting everything in view — not an easily replicable process.

But a new study out of the Boston Area Research Initiative, a Harvard University-based collaborative of academics and city officials, suggests a new possibility: a cheap, sprawling and easily updated map of the urban condition.

Mining data from Boston’s constituent relationship management (CRM) operation — a hotline, website and mobile app for citizens to report everything from abandoned bicycles to mouse-infested apartment buildings — researchers have created an almost real-time guide to what ails the city.

“In this whole scheme of big data,” said Dan O’Brien, research director at BARI and co-author of the study, “this is the first time, to our knowledge, that someone sat down and developed a methodology for how we measure neighborhood conditions.”

The Findings

Some of the initial findings are unsurprising. Researchers, for instance, found housing issues like inadequate heating and bed bugs are more prevalent in poorer pockets of the city.

On this map, darker colors indicate areas with greater housing issues.

But a first-of-its-kind measure of civic engagement — how likely are residents of a given block to report a pothole or broken streetlight? — yields more meaningful results.

One early finding: language barriers seem to explain scant reporting in neighborhoods with large populations of Latino and Asian renters; that’s already prompted targeted flyering that’s yielded modest improvements.

The same engagement measure points to another, more hopeful phenomenon: clusters of citizen activists show up not just in wealthy enclaves, as expected, but in low-income areas.

In this map, darker colors indicate areas more likely to contact City Hall about a problem.

The explanation, in the end, is intuitive: O’Brien said homeownership, regardless of income, drives use of the city’s reporting system.

But it provides a starting point — a building block — for city officials looking to boost civic participation in struggling neighborhoods.

Justin Holmes, director of constituent engagement for the city, said a 2011 survey of residents using the city’s hotline, website and app found a high level of satisfaction: 89 percent said they would recommend the service to friends and family.

“We in government sometimes benefit from very low expectations,” he said. “And when people say, ‘Hey, I called the city about a pothole and two days later it was filled,’ in some ways, they’re jumping up and down on the street about it.”

The challenge, he said, is getting frequent users — the homeowners identified by O’Brien and fellow researchers Robert Sampson and Christopher Winship — to spread the word through neighborhood and social networks.

One way to increase participation and build more engaged neighborhoods, he said, may be to redesign the city’s Citizens Connect app.

Researchers at the Emerson College Engagement Game Lab argue that Citizens Connect and CRM systems across the country encourage a narrow sort of interaction: report a problem to City Hall and log off.

Gamifying the process — and providing users with real-life rewards — could help, they argued in a recent paper. But redesigned apps, they wrote, should also force users to see their reports in a broader social context.

That could mean placing those reports on a map highlighting other service requests in the neighborhood. It could also mean enhancing social media features and building campaigns on Facebook and Twitter.

“I reported a pothole at Tremont and Boylston,” the Emerson researchers noted, is very different than “I, along with 150 other Bostonians, contributed to the smooth streets campaign.”

The Next Level

The possible applications for a living map of the city’s broken windows, though, extend beyond improvements to the CRM system.

For a city working to build civic life in troubled neighborhoods like Bowdoin-Geneva, the engagement map — which can be refreshed every two months — could serve as a measuring tool for officials: a way to monitor evolving (or static) vitality.

For community activists looking for evidence of gentrification or decline, the map could provide a window on a neighborhood’s shifting character.

And O’Brien said he sees an opportunity to answer bigger questions about how, precisely, neighborhood decay unfolds.

The Boston model includes more measures of “physical disorder” — 29 in total — than any that preceded it. A researcher driving down the street at five miles per hour can only see so much, after all. Residents reporting problems to the city — from bed bugs to faulty plumbing — offer a glimpse behind closed doors.

“If you have different pieces you can start to think about, well, do people park on their front yards more often in response to the fact that their house is falling down — they’re renters and…they think, ‘OK, well I can just do whatever I want here, so I’ll park on the front lawn,'” he said. “Or is it, people see other people parking on their front lawns and they think to themselves, ‘Well, people don’t really take care of the spaces in this neighborhood, maybe I shouldn’t care so much about taking care of my house.’ Or does that relate to street litter? And how does this relate to graffiti? Is it all of these factors or is it none of them?”

These are the sort of questions that have been tugging at academics and anti-poverty advocates and elected officials for more than a generation.

Big data, O’Brien suggests, just might provide some of the answers.

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