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. 


Mapping Morsels | A Day In the Life of Linda

Mapping Morsels Draft Map

One of the pieces I’m working on right now is creating a map highlighting how food businesses (grocery stores/restaurants/cafes) create destinations where people come and bring communities together. The above is a draft of a map I’m working on right now,

Through Mapping Morsels, I visualize these themes through the context of Oakland Chinatown. Our main character is Linda, who runs Phnom Penh House Restaurant in Oakland Chinatown.

Every day, to stock up on vegetables and meat, as well as other sauces and herbs, to cook for her customers, she makes a daily grocery trip throughout Chinatown!

For example, one dish is composed of several ingredients purchased from one, two, or three grocery stores throughout Chinatown. Linda has kindly allowed me to map out which stores she goes to as well as which ingredients make up the dishes she buys.

In other words:

Let’s map the ingredients and stores she goes throughout this map:

By showing these connections, viewers/readers will begin to see how food is an integral part of bringing people together. Without these places to purchase or eat food, there is one less place in a city for people to come together, meet up. In fact, I argue restaurants/cafes/grocery stores contribute to a unique identity to a community, as well as bringing economic vitality to a community.

If you think about it, you have to go to a grocery store to purchase your weekly groceries. You go to a cafe or restaurant to bond in an informal setting with your friends and family. These atmospheres are places where you can get away from the daily grind of work. What I wish to accomplish is that we should value these sort of places.

As I work more on these future projects, I hope to create a portfolio of work that bridges the public participation process between government agencies and local community members.

Having a strong sense of trust among your peers is more important than how well you do

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been milling over organizational behavior, professional development and it surprised me is that it matters more that you are able to establish trust among your peers/co-workers rather than how well you do.

Let’s break this down into further detail; note, having some basic competency in an area/specialty will help, but if you are just starting out in an organization, you will definitely feel new.

People generally want to work with people or feel comfortable with people they can relate to. How do you establish this comfort? For example, common interests, easy-to-relate personality types, level of openness and confidence, experiences that friends can relate to, stories, etc.

As simple as this may sound, in a world where you have to work in interdisciplinary settings, meeting new people from different professions and backgrounds, the ability to establish trust makes me realize: 

You don’t have to be perfect at what you do.  You’re going to always going to make mistakes as you go along, but as along as you have your friends and co-workers network by your side, you guys can work together and learn from those mistakes, because they feel comfortable working with you.

As an Asian-American, I grew up studying a lot and my family focused a lot of my experiences on studying. For some reason, they felt like socializing a lot was bad for my academic career. Thus, this sense of establishing rapport, socializing, using your peers together to establish a vision, seemed to be forgotten.

Now that I look back at my youth, I think I’m embracing that sense of imperfection now (to the point I have major senioritis in college, lol!). You really can’t do things on your own, learn to trust the power of your own team. Look for your own team members for inspiration rather than yourself.

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?

Food for thought: applying ethnography into participatory urban planning

How can we turn day-to-day observations into compelling data that becomes useful?

Side note: Starting today, I’ve opened up the blog Participatory Cities up for the public! This will be a repository and data-base for participatory planning processes. This is my first blog post for that blog, and I’m reposting it here for reference.  More details later.

According to Wikipedia:

Ethnography is two things: (1) the fundamental research method of cultural anthropology,and (2) the written text produced to report ethnographic research results.

Ethnography as method seeks to answer central anthropological questions concerning the ways of life of living human beings. Ethnographic questions generally concern the link between culture and behavior and/or how cultural processes develop over time. The data base for ethnographies is usually extensive description of the details of social life or cultural phenomena in a small number of cases.


Participant observation is based on living among the people under study for a lengthy period, usually a year, and gathering data through continuous involvement in their lives and activities. The ethnographer begins systematic observation and keeps daily field notes, in which the significant events of each day are recorded along with informants’ interpretations. Initial observations focus on general, open ended data gathering derived from learning the most basic cultural rules and usually the local language as well. This initial orientation process is important not only for providing a background for more narrowly focused investigation but also helps the anthropologist to gain rapport with his/her informants, avoid breaches of etiquette, and test out whether the original research objectives are meaningful and practical in the local situation.

What I particularly like about the ethnographic approach is that it allows people to deeply immerse oneself into the community to truly know the day-to-day activities of a community; in other words, how does the day-to-day activities of a particular group of people reflect the culture and its values?

These sort of questions get easily lost in the urban planning profession, where public meetings are the one of the few places where people can come, but however, get really intimidated due to, for example, a lack of understanding of the public planning process (i.e. due to jargon or bureaucracy).

I guess the question that is in my mind is: how do we transform, compile ethnographic data, and turn it into useful guidelines and recommendations in urban planning?

An example of how this dilemma comes up is in SLAB, MIT Sidewalk Laboratory. Here, they have used interviews and observations to create several maps how people use, identify  connect with,  and interact with sidewalk space in Ho Chih Minh City in Vietnam.

3D Time Space Map of Ho Chih Minh City

This is a great map showing the different types of activities taking place in one day in this neighborhood, but the question is, can these sort of tools be used as products to guide future urban planning?

I really like how this map captures the day-to-day lifestyles of the people in this neighborhood. However, much of these sort of maps, products, visualizations, etc. are still at its early “observatory” phases. One might argue that one can use this map to guide how other similar neighborhoods are planned and organize, but how? I don’t think there has been a discussion on how these forms of visualizations can guide (or not) urban planning.

Ethnography and various data-collection tools, I believe, can be an excellent first step in deeply embedding oneself into a community and understanding it’s overlying issues from the ground-up. However, without a way to transform the data into planning recommendations, it still has a long ways to go to engage communities into making better cities.

On participatory planning and bus rapid transit

An opinion article in the Oakland Tribune discussing animosity against the AC Transit Bus Rapid Transit throughout the San Francisco East Bay corridor.

An East Bay business owner wrote an opinion article on the Oakland Tribune discussing his opposition to the proposed AC Transit Bus Rapid Transit Corridor, that is currently going through the planning process.

Center BRT lanes require removal of parking spaces to place automobile lanes closer to the street curb.

He opposes the project mainly because he fears with the loss of parking spaces, there would be a loss of customers, who depend on the automobile to carry their goods from stores in the corridor. This is due to the placement of the BRT lanes on the center of the road, which requires some loss of parking spaces as the automobile lanes move closer to the curb.

However, he explicitly states that he is “very disappointed with the approach AC Transit leaders have taken” in the planning process. For example, he believes that the planning staff “ha[s] not negotiated in good faith with the merchants and property owners on Telegraph throughout the BRT process.”

In other words, he has a sense of distrust over how the bus rapid transit corridor is being implemented because he feels his needs are not being adequately met.

The people commenting argue that bus rapid transit can provide a ‘economic boon’ for the businesses in the corridor with more frequent and faster bus service. What is interesting is that they are primarily people who are employed in the transportation / planning professions.

So the question is, which side is right? The merchant or the AC Transit planning staff plus the planners who are commenting on the issue.

Actually, I believe both sides are correct, but let’s get the point of view of the merchants for a second.

Continue reading “On participatory planning and bus rapid transit”