Why big data firms are missing out on a potential market: urban sustainability

ImageThe City of San Francisco has mapped all the trees as part of an effort to map and illustrate the health, water, air quality, and economic benefits of trees. One such site showing these benefits is UrbanForestMap (http://urbanforestmap.org/)

Here’s a video explaining what they do:

One thing it should work on is the communications, public relations, and social media, because as an organization which prides itself as a medium for citizen participation. 

  • The Facebook page only has about 900 followers, its Twitter page has about 730 followers, and its Google Plus has only 15 followers, while the City of San Francisco has 825,863 people. In addition, as of today, the last time the FB page was updated was in April 2012.
  • Getting me to go outside to figure out what tree is growing outside, mapping the tree on the website, while a simple easy task, is not a priority for some people, and you need to sell its importance to people in a way people can understand, relate to, and empathize with. 
  • Communicating to the right audience means that you know how to target the people with the right skill-set to improve urban sustainability. For example, big data firms and tech-savy entrepreneurs have barely scratched the surface in terms of tackling urban sustainability. This is a potential market that they are missing out on.

Currently, cities pay consultants to write reports which guide economic and community development (in other words, how cities will look like in 20 or 30 years):


Planning consultants write in large 90 page reports about how a city and particular area will be, how many people will be living near BART, how many people will be working in an area, or where to put parks or plan for open spaces where people will hang out.

First, a majority of people (urban planners even admit this) don’t read these reports.

I argue that big data can empower a generation of people, because by data, you have a medium and are able to tell a story and communicate to a larger audience. Reaching out to this scale means you can influence and create new experiences, inspire others, and change the way we see the world. Big data can be as much as an art.

With big data, as well as a improved communications and public relations strategy, we can empower consumers, and inspire them to take action that improves the quality of life not only for themselves but for the planet.  Imagine impacting 820,000 people in San Francisco.

As one commenter to this video states:

 While many countries publish some of their data to public, it is mostly in document, web page, reports format which is also not linked to other set of information coming even from their own source next time.

What is needed that this is provided as raw data having linkages to other known data sets at least in ministry/ department with a provision of adding new linkages by other departments/ ministeries/ public at large.

This has power to trigger new questions connecting different fields of studies and allowing us to see how new solutions can be built with combined knowledge of many.

Dr. APJ Kalam (Ex-President of India) has proposed to buld a World Knowledge Platform to leverage combined knowledge of all nations to solve world most challenging problems.


Can big data guide city planning?

datasfThe City of San Francisco has released a open data platform where techno-savy  users and firms can use the data to create stunning products and visualizations that help inform the city about how to improve urban issues in the city.

I believe the key is that th(at) cit(ies) should aggressively market to big data firms, as they have the expertise to use technology to better understand how cities work, and guiding better city planning that improves the quality of life of citizens and the planet.

At the same time, big data firms (and big data like projects such as the Urban Tree Map) can communicate with their audience about how to improve the quality of life of the planet, because a better planet means a better quality of life for individuals in the world in the long run. 


Have city government officials and city planners thought about employing animators and illustrators in city hall?

ACTransit EasyPass from Jeff Lai on Vimeo.

I love this quick 30 second animation (likely made with Adobe Flash, which can be easily learned within a couple of months) showing how to use the AC Transit Easy Pass.

I’m always curious about whether city government officials (particularly smaller cities and suburbs or neighborhoods) have thought about employing animators and illustrators in the government.

Strengthening the working relationship between city government and local community groups, and people who live in the community is key in making an active citizen group in making a city a better place to live. If a government is actively engaging – and no, this does not include just a public meeting because these only reach out to a specific demographic of people, such as the well-educated, people who have time to go to meetings – in a community, and if a citizenry becomes more aware of their needs, think of the amount of potential federal funding that could go into improving local infrastructure or supporting local businesses, that improves the health and livelihood of a society.

For example,  lets say  there are very few public parks in a neighborhood. The neighborhood, unfortunately, is not very walkable, most people drive, and people don’t really care about  parks.

Now, however, what if they hired animators/illustrators/tech-savy public relations folks to educate the public about the health consequences of not having parks/proper playgrounds in a neighborhood? For example, there is a lot of research which show that when children play more and exercise, it improves one’s creativity, imagination, critical thinking skills (and of course, health), which means that children will do better in school, and thus in return, can help be active contributors to our society and economy. Playgrounds, while seemingly “expensive”, are actually important investments in society we should not take for granted.

However, how do you convey this in a very visually compelling story? 

I’m thinking of a video format similar to the one below that SPUR made showing the benefits of creating a second BART Transbay tube across the San Francisco Bay Area:

Why does this work? It paints a picture, a story to a your head that is user-friendly, not dense and technical; it is memorable because it synthesizes what would take studies, large documents of texts, and boring powerpoint presentations in public meetings into key, memorable, slap-stats that people will remember. It is a memorable video that can inspire support and actions.

Imagine if community groups and organizations used these NGOs ; imagine if more people who use the internet see these infographics /videos start to show their support  for these sort of videos. Local government institutions, then can use the statistics gathered from the video (i.e. stats, demographics, amount of Facebook likes, etc.) as key data that can be added to federal government grants, which local governments apply for (lots of writing! Think of a essay of why we need money) to show that we need money for playgrounds.

To be honest, you cannot get funding for a project if the need is not there – funding is key if you want to do projects. You need to demonstrate the need, and infographics and data can do this.

Thus, I believe that illustration/animations can help remove the barriers of public participation. It’s less time-dependent, less dependent on specialist/technical knowledge, and can reach out to a wider audience. If you can’t reach out to a wider audience, the government will also not really care and do anything.

I believe in the long run, if you invest in illustrations, animators, artists  public relations in government, you can help strengthen relationships and make it a lot easier to demand for a better, more healthier, sustainable society.

The concept of trust in public participation

Thought I will stray a bit from my illustration/artsy/design posts and talk about a very simple concept in public participation in urban planning. It’s so simple, yet it’s so hard to get.


Simply put, if you want to get something done with a group of people, i.e. a community, you need to get their trust. If you want to solve a community problem –  for example, a lack of jobs or affordable housing, a need for public space, etc. – you need to get a community’s trust. If they don’t trust you, or there’s tension among the community, it will be very difficult to get things done.

But really, how do you establish a community’s trust?

This really depends on the type of project that an urban planning department is trying to implement:

Below is a diagram from the Public Participation Litmus Test which describes first when to do public participation:

Litumus Test For Public Participation

Essentially, a situation which is okay for people to be willing to participate in public participation is when: there is low cost and lots of benefit (or lots of things in it for them; i.e. lots of things at stake).

This is very important to attempt to convey; there has to be a lot of stake for a community for a community to participate, with little barriers of access, in order for a community to participate.

The question really is: what is considered a lot at stake is a very constructed view; i.e. it is a perception.

For example, we (i.e. the city planner) will perceive that a transit oriented development and creating walk-able cities is a very important issue in creating sustainable, resource-efficient healthy cities. We want our people to be healthy, we want our air to be healthier, we want to not depend on gasoline to move from one place to another, etc. etc.

But, the person may not be concerned with these issues. A working class dad is much concerned about being able to pay the rent, spend more time with family, and have a high quality of life. This person does not have time to focus on “walk-abilty” because to his eyes and ears, it is a concept he cannot relate to.

This is the key to establishing trust; how can you make these ideas of sustainable cities a worthwhile goal that people really should be concerned about, or have a huge stake on, that is framed around the user?

While I like the public participation litmus test, it assumes that there are a lot of issues that aren’t at stake for the majority of people. When, in reality, they are. We need to start worrying about the environment, education, housing costs for our children, transportation, public health, economy, etc. The question, is how?

It really is a legitimate concern that people don’t have time to participation (i.e. due to work, bureaucratic environment of the government, etc.); this is where you need to lower the barriers of access to engaging in public participation.

The process of lowering the barriers of access is, from one perspective, increasing trust. How do you increase trust?

I don’t have an answer to this question immediately; however, check out some examples of organizations and people who have attempted to find ways to engage people that lower the barriers of access and make it easy for people to be informed, engaged, in day-to-day urban planning issues:

By breaking down the barriers of access and re-framing the question to fit the needs of the user, which then increases the stakes of a particular issue, I believe this helps increase trust in a urban planning process. However, it is important to acknowledge that trust is one stage of public participation, as how does one keep the public engaged in a public issue for a longer period of time?