Three Quick Takeaways from the December 13 EPA Webinar

Strong, sustainable communities start with great decisions — and all good decisions are rooted in data. As people who plan, manage, and shape the cities we live in, where our decisions come from and how they’re made matters. But there’s a problem: This type of insight is notoriously difficult to access, analyze, and share.

During the EPA’s December 13 webinar, Dr. Keren Bolter and Stephen Hardy discussed how to tackle the most common problems associated with accessing and using data, and talked about how communities can use data to increase sustainability.

Here are 3 takeaways from the webinar:

1. Cities can use data to avoid the mistakes of the past.

There have been two major shifts in urban form in the US: the first was the change that took place from the industrial revolution, which came with some unforeseen consequences (namely the disruption of employment and social fabric). The second great change was the rise of the automobile, which radically changed mobility, urban design, and the way we live in this country.

So what will be the third big change for American cities?

“Autonomous cars and AI — think Amazon’s cashier-less grocery stores — will be the third big change that will impact cities,” said Stephen Hardy. “Currently, 50% of our urban areas are dedicated to the automobile, and its evolution will dramatically reduce the real estate dedicated to personal vehicles. Both the reduction in vehicle purchases and the use of AI means that at least 50% of existing jobs will be irrelevant in the next 20 years. It is clear that cities will be on the front lines of both technological innovation and huge potential inequities.”

He went on to say that if we’ve seen anything from the last two technological shifts, we will see that we didn’t plan well for the last two, and as a result people lost jobs, were displaced, and suffered economically. Now that we are on the precipice of this third shift, we have the chance to avoid some of the unforeseen consequences of the past.

“That’s what I’m advocating for today,” said Hardy. “We should make sure people are at the center of all of our data-driven decisions.”

2. Looking at more data — including what is nationally available — provides much richer insight than your city’s data alone.

A great example of this is citizen satisfaction data, which, when combined with other datasets, can reveal a lot about a place. For instance, Hardy explained, if you were to look at the feeling of safety across Kansas City, you probably wouldn’t notice any patterns. But if you combine feelings of safety with crime data, you can compare how safe people FEEL with actual crime rates. Interestingly enough, in Kansas City, “there is no correlation between crime and a citizen’s perception of safety. This is helpful in acknowledging that safety is a complex feeling and more policing isn’t always the answer,” said Hardy.

Thus, in an area that has very low crime but also low feelings of safety, the solution most likely lies in better communication, rather than increased security measures.

3. Data needs to make sense to the masses.

“Having maps that show critical and legitimate information in a way that people understand is going to lead to changes in behavior and better policymaking,” explained Dr. Keren Prize Bolter, who is spearheading the Southeast Florida DataCommon, a collaborative effort featuring interactive platforms and learning environments where myriad organizations contribute data, create visualizations, and access the data of others to improve outcomes in their planning and program areas.

Bolter explained that the DataCommon is making data more user-friendly — and one way they do this is by using mySidewalk to create data visualizations and tell the stories of the citizens who live in Southeast Florida.

Bolter argued that open-access data is hugely important, but if the available data doesn’t make sense to people, then the open data ultimately fails to benefit the public.

“It’s one thing to see it on a map,” she said. “But it’s another thing to talk to the community and say, ‘Does this make sense to you?’”

That’s why Bolter advocates for the ultimate goal of making data meaningful to the masses.

To learn more about how your community can make data meaningful, tune in to the full webinar recording here.


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