Comparing effect of teacher scores and parent engagement on Chicago student math scores

Here’s a chart from Chicago open data about the progress report for Chicago Public Schools for the 2011 to 2012 school year.

Here’s what I did. I narrowed the list of schools down to 208, including only those that had data in these three categories: ISAT (Illinois Standard Achievement Test) Exceeding Math %, parent engagement score, and teacher score. (I don’t know how the progress report scored teachers or parent engagement.) I then charted the math achievement score against and the parent-engagement and teacher scores, and added a trend line.

Here’s what it shows: Both parent engagement and high teacher scores are important to achievement; there is an upward trend in math scores for both variables. Teacher score, however, seems to have the stronger effect, according to this data. Never underestimate the power of a good teacher.

The trend with ISAT Exceeding Reading scores is substantially the same as the math-scores trend.


Reducing inmates, saving money – plans for America’s largest jail

Electronic monitoring get out of jail freeThe Cook County jail is currently the largest single-site jail in the nation. (Jails, as opposed to prisons, house inmates sentenced to less than a year imprisonment or who are awaiting trial, which can last for multiple years.) The Cook County jail can house nearly 10,000 inmates at a time and holds about 100,000 annually. (Interestingly, I learned on a recent tour of the jail that it also operates the state’s largest mental-health facility, just for inmates.)

Running a jail that big is very expensive; not to mention that overcrowding increases the risk of bad conditions and violence. Cook County Board of Commissioners president Toni Preckwinkle says the cost is $143 per inmate per day. With nearly 10,000 inmates, that’s hundreds of millions of dollars. Preckwinkle wants to cut the cost, as reported by the New York Times:

She set a goal of reducing the average daily population at the jail from about 8,500 to 7,500 in the next fiscal year [2012], which begins Dec. 1, to save about $5 million.

That’s a pretty ambitious goal for a county to take on.

The county can’t rewrite the criminal laws; nor does it generally choose who to prosecute. Those decisions are left to the state and federal government. But the county does get to choose how it restrains people: a spokesman for the county sheriff says they are working to enhance their approach to electronic monitoring, particularly for nonviolent first-time offenders. Apparently 70% of the jail’s inmates are there for nonviolent crimes, and Preckwinkle wants to see more of those people put on electronic monitoring rather than incarcerated. Chicago estimates the cost of home surveillance is $65 per day, so it seems like a good plan. (I’ve seen estimates that electronic surveillance can cost as little as $5 per day.) The cost can even be charged to offenders, who, in most cases, would be glad to pay $65 for a get-out-of-jail card.

This seems like a great idea to me, and one that highlights the potential for municipalities to help solve problems that the state and federal government can’t seem to figure out. America has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. This costs us more than just the price of housing inmates: inmates bring hundreds of civil-rights cases a year against prison officials for constitutional violations (some caused by overcrowding), which add cost to the state and federal government and, of course, human potential is wasted. But no politician wants to be the one to let off more criminals, so there is a lack of support for reforming our prison system. Preckwinkle’s plan makes sense; it targets those awaiting trial (people aren’t getting off too easy in the end), and those who are the least likely to be a risk to society.

What are your thoughts?

Do wealthy cities have higher Internet literacy?

Knight-Crane Convergence Lab - Flickr - Knight Foundation (2)A recent study by Dr. John Miller at Central Connecticut State University has been getting buzz lately for comparing census poverty data to his study of literacy rates in 75 metro areas. As reported in The Atlantic Cities, he found no correlation:

Using US Census data for income in the relevant cities, I learned that wealthier cites are no more likely to rank highly in literacy than poorer cities. For example, Cleveland ranks second lowest for median family income (among the AMLC cities) and yet, thanks to its great library system (ranked #1 in the AMLC) and strong newspaper (#6) and magazine (#5) circulations, it is ranked 13th most literate in the survey.  On the other hand, Anchorage, AK is ranked 5th in median family income and only 61st in literacy.

Other notable cities that exemplify this finding are St. Louis, which ranks 70th in median family income but #8 in literacy; Henderson, NV (#7 in wealth and #53 in literacy), San Diego (#8 in wealth and #33.5 in literacy. While poverty has a strong impact on educational attainment, its impact on literacy is much weaker.

I noticed that one of Dr. Miller’s criteria for evaluating a city’s literacy was Internet Resources. This made me wonder: Does the same trend hold true for Internet resources? Is wealth irrelevant to Internet readership? I could only find the Internet-readership data for 2010 on his website, so I looked at that.

First, I looked at the two cities Miller mentions as outperforming their poverty level, Cleveland and St. Louis: Cleveland ranks 13 overall but 36 in Internet Resources, and St. Louis ranks 11 overall but 38 in Internet Resources. This data seems to support a stronger correlation between Internet literacy and wealth than overall literacy and wealth.

But what about the cities he mentions as underperforming in literacy compared to their wealth? Anchorage ranks 49 overall (in 2010) but 66.5 in Internet Resources, and Henderson ranks 64 overall but 66.5 in Internet Resources. Even these wealthy cities had worse Internet literacy than overall literacy, so it seems to me that wealth is not the driving factor in Internet literacy either. San Diego, however, the third wealthy city he mentions, ranks 10 in Internet Resources and 33.5 overall.

Here are the top 14 cities in terms of Internet Resources (14, so I could include Chicago):

1 Washington, DC 2
2 Austin, TX 16
3 Seattle, WA 1
4 Boston, MA 8
6 San Francisco, CA 12
6 Oakland, CA 35
6 San Jose, CA 56
8 New York City, NY 29
9 Atlanta, GA 5
10 San Diego, CA 33.5
11 Philadelphia, PA 32
12 Kansas City, MO 14
13.5 Portland, OR 6
13.5 Chicago, IL 30


Featured Website: LOVELAND Technologies

loveland technologiesLOVELAND Technologies is a neat project out of Detroit, Michigan, that is selling micro-lots of land in “microhoods” for $1 per square inch that people can track online. They focus on making these microhoods exciting by generating artsy urban-renewal projects. According to their website, they “aim to provide a fun, game-like ownership experience while creating entertainment fundraising, community collaboration, and social mapping tools that work at any scale.” They got started a few years ago through Kickstarter.

They have a few other projects. There’s online mapping projects (in collaboration with Data Driven Detroit) and a “LoveTax” system, a creative way for people to fund projects. They also have a cool online app called “Why Don’t We Own This?” that tracks more than 40,000 vacant properties owned by the city, state, or county. The Huffington Post recently reported that this year’s Code for America fellows in Detroit will be building off the momentum that project has created. Overall, a great Detroit project to check out.

For more info, the founders gave a presentation at a TEDx conference in Detroit in 2010 that I’ve embedded after the jump.

Continue reading “Featured Website: LOVELAND Technologies”

How to misuse 311 data

The Bed-Bug (Cimex lectularius)

I read a recent article in the Chicago Reader about continuing bed-bug infestations that inspired me to comment on an easy-to-make mistake regarding 311 data. Here’s what the article says:

The City of Chicago’s Department of Buildings tracks the number of bedbug infestations reported through 311 calls, and reports [an upward trend].

The department started keeping a record in 2006; there were 25 calls that year, 50 the next, and 103 in 2008. Since then the number of calls has increased by roughly 100 each year, totaling 376 in 2011.

(This information was further highlighted in an infographic embedded in the article.)

Here’s the problem: The author seems to suggest that the increase in 311-bed-bug reports is evidence of an increasing bed-bug problem, but the number of 311 calls per year fluctuates. So it’s impossible to know whether there are more bed bugs or whether simply, for some other reason, more people thought to call 311 in a given year. Perhaps a local tv station publicized 311 that year, thus driving up calls. I was unable to find reliable data on the total number of 311 calls for 2006 to 2011, but I know the numbers for 2008 (4,533,125) and 2009 (4,136,505), showing that the yearly call volume can vary by nearly $400,000 year-to-year.

The better metric would be the increase in the ratio of bed-bugs reports to total 311 calls. At least that would account for the possibility that people were just using 311 more in general during a certain year. Based on my research, I still think there is an upward trend, though maybe not for 2010 to 2011, when the increase in bed-bug calls was only 76 calls.

One resource I find particularly helpful on matters like this is Darrell Hunt’s classic “How to Lie with Statistics,” which teaches the reader, in a fun and readable way, to be skeptical of how of the media presents data. It should be required college reading.

Zoning for City 2.0

Chicago Plan Commission, 1946

As I’ve written previously, city governments get their power from the state. Yet states almost always give cities authority to enact zoning laws, a legal device used to limit land use. (Interestingly, many states authorized zoning by adopting standard zoning-enabling legislation drafted by the U.S. Department of Commerce. So zoning, like wireless-infrastructure funding, is another pro-city development advanced by the federal government.)

Zoning comes in many different forms. The Supreme Court first upheld the constitutionality of zoning in 1926, when approving an ordinance in Euclid, Ohio, that limited land use by geographic region and development type (i.e. industrial v. residential). That ruling spawned an increase in that type of zoning, but others exist: Some cities set a base of limitations and then give incentives for land developers to restrict land use in additional ways (this is called incentive zoning), and other cities worry less about whether the property is industrial or residential and more about the “form” of the buildings, i.e., their size or amount of street access (this is called formed-based zoning).

Obviously, the importance of this device in city planning can’t be emphasized enough: It would be hard to plan a city without it; even Houston, the largest U.S. city without zoning, has other land-use regulations that serve as a sort of equivalent.

As an example, I want to highlight how NYC is using zoning in innovative ways. The city now views zoning as not only a land-use tool, but as a tool for encouraging beneficial social change. As Julie Iovine recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, NYC is using zoning “to curb obesity by offering incentives for fresh-food markets in low-income neighborhoods; buck up the mom-and-pop store; and promote an astonishing range of other quality-of-life benefits.” Additionally, the city now wants to use zoning to influence small details of city design: according to Iovine, NYC Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden introduced on January 3 “a zoning amendment that will preserve small shops on avenues with a residential character and force new banks on the Upper West Side to shift most of their services from extended street fronts to second-floor locations.”

Of course not everyone will be excited about these innovations. And zoning (like any government function) has the potential to be co-opted by business interests, to the detriment of the public. But regardless, aggressive zoning for the public good remains an vital tool in the belt of 21st-century city planners who want to turn hoards of data into real-world progressive.

Meet the companies with the most lobbyists in Chicago

Handshake (Workshop Cologne '06)Chicago requires lobbyists to register and then lists them (and their clients) on the city’s data portal. I went through and tried to figure out who had the most lobbyists registered in Chicago in 2011. I combined subsidiaries whenever possible. Here’s the list, by my count:

  1. JP Morgan Chase (19)— the largest U.S. bank by assets.
  2. Bank of America (10 + 6 for Merrill Lynch)— the 2nd largest U.S. bank.
  3. Chicago Parking Meters LLC (15)— company led by Morgan Stanley that has a 75-year lease on city parking meters (for opposing views on that deal see here and here).
  4. Two-way tie between AT&T (14), the communications giant, and…
  5. US Bancorp (14)— the 5th largest U.S. bank.
  6. Four-way tie between BMO Harris Bank (13)— Chicago-based bank, 16th largest in U.S.,
  7. Morgan Stanley (13)— financial-services giant,
  8. Public Building Commission of Chicago (13)— corporation formed by Mayor Daley (now chaired by Mayor Emanuel) to “oversee and help ensure quality [public] facilities,” and…
  9. Wal-Mart (13)— retail giant who has worked vigilantly to expand in Chicago.
  10. Commonwealth Edison (or ComEd) (12)— the largest electric utility in Illinois.
  11. Two-way tie between Clear Channel (11)— media conglomerate, and…
  12. Chicago Loop Parking (11)— company that owns and operates parking garages.
  13. KPMG LLP (10)— professional-services giant; one of the “big four” accounting firms.

Of course, some have noted that federal lobbyist-registration data may be unreliable because there are ways to circumvent the rules, and the same may be true of Chicago’s rules. But this data at least provides a rough sketch of who is working to influence Chicago officials.

Here is another website analyzing data about Chicago lobbyists from 2010, including which clients have paid the most to lobbyists. Oddly, some of the highest firms on my list seem to have paid low amounts in actually lobbying funds; the Salvation Army apparently paid the most to lobbyists. I would suspect that the major financial-services firms on my list have found ways to avoid disclosing the full amount they pay for lobbying, especially since they have so many registered lobbyists.

The FCC and incentive auctions (or why admin law matters to City 2.0)

fcc auctionAs a follow up to why municipal law matters to City 2.0, I want to address a second source of law that affects local government in America—federal administrative law. Many agencies create regulations that help (or hinder) smart city growth, and I want to give one example of a federal initiative that I think might help cities.

This initiative comes in the area of public Internet access, a goal of many cities. Indeed, I wrote yesterday about NYC making broader Internet access a core principle of its Roadmap to a Digital City. I not only support this goal but believe that greater access to high-speed Internet is essential to the successful cities of the future.

Yet, interestingly, many cities’ best hope of increasing wireless access lies in the federal government. City initiatives to increase Internet access often fail because they’re too expensive, as with Chicago’s failed attempt at city-wide Wi-Fi.  But the federal government has a plan to raise around $25 billion (!) that it promises to invest in fortifying our nation’s wireless infrastructure.

The plan is for the FCC to raise this money through licensing chunks of the electromagnetic spectrum, the limited range of airwave frequencies that supports wireless services like broadcast television, radio, and, importantly, broadband internet. Since 1994 the agency has been using an auction process, where companies bid for spectrum licenses. Right now, however, Internet providers like AT&T and Verizon are desperate for more spectrum (for data-hungry wireless devices), and the best chunks of spectrum—those that can go further and penetrate walls and windows better—are already licensed to television stations, who many times don’t need all the spectrum they have. To solve that problem, the President and the FCC have recently rolled out plans for a “voluntary incentive auction” where a TV company could voluntarily put some of its spectrum up for auction; the proceeds to go in part to the TV company and in part to the U.S. Treasury.  The FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, promoted this plan in remarks at this month’s CES, predicting that the program would generate “about $25 billion in cash for the Treasury.” The White House is even more optimistic:

Voluntary incentive auctions, along with other measures to enable more efficient spectrum management, will generate nearly $28 billion over the next 10 years, providing funds that will enable us to build a interoperable wireless broadband network for public safety, expand high-speed wireless broadband to rural America, and establish a Wireless Innovation Fund to accelerate the research and development of cutting-edge wireless technologies and applications. The Budget invests $5 billion in the National Wireless Initiative to increase the availability of 4G wireless networks to at least 98 percent of the country.

The plan is not without controversy, but not how you might think. Lawmakers generally support the idea of incentive auctions but don’t trust the FCC to run them. (The television industry generally opposes these auctions but is realizing they are inevitable.) The distrust comes in part from the FCC’s handling of a 2008 auction, which some people think Google gamed. Here’s why: although AT&T and Verizon were to be the primary auction bidders, Google pressured the FCC to require the auctioned chunk of spectrum to be “net neutral,” meaning that the winner of the auction could not put certain restrictions on its use (restrictions that might have hurt Google). The FCC agreed to impose Google’s proposed conditions if the bidding went above $4.6 billion; Google then entered the race and drove up bidding to make sure that happened. In a related incident, the FCC  tried to impose net neutrality on Comcast and was shot down by a federal court; that situation as well may be furthering distrust.

But now, the FCC needs Congress to approve its incentive-auction plan (the  FCC has authority to run auctions and reclaim spectrum but not to compensate TV stations), so this issue has, of course, become a mess. In December a bill was introduced in the House to allow these auctions, but the bill imposed what the FCC sees as stiff restrictions on what it can do with reclaimed spectrum. Blair Levin, former head of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, put it this way in an interview: “If you put into law all kinds of handcuffs, you are not going to produce any money or create any spectrum.” As reported by John Eggerton, Levin says that “the right legislation would be one sentence giving the FCC the right to compensate broadcasters” (thus giving broad FCC control over the reclaimed spectrum). And according to Chairman Genachowski, “112 leading economists from across the ideological spectrum” agree with Levin, writing that “[g]iving the FCC authority to implement incentive auctions with flexibility to design appropriate rules would increase social welfare,” which means, says Genachowski, “more innovation, more economic growth, and more improvements in our quality of life” (emphasis mine). Needless to say, critics have decried this approach as giving unbounded control of auctions to the FCC.

But the broad authority the FCC wants would not be unbridled. In creating the FCC in 1934, Congress required that the agency’s regulations be guided by “public interest, convenience, and necessity,” and that rule still constrains the agency’s actions. And the agency’s decisions are reviewable in federal court. Critics also argue that the FCC is an “unelected” agency and thus won’t act in the nation’s best interest, but the President, as head of the executive branch, appoints the FCC’s Commissioners and can remove them for good cause, so the agency, at least in some way, is accountable to the electorate.

I think the answer lies somewhere between Levin’s proposal of one-sentence legislation and the current bill in Congress. I don’t think it’s a good idea for Congress to lay out all the details about what happens to reclaimed spectrum. In a soon to be published paper, I argue for the same idea to be applied to No Child Left Behind: create a fair, transparent process but leave the details to the agency. Congress is often less transparent and accessible than agencies: Among other things, agencies have local offices with staffers who live in local communities and are familiar with community concerns; agencies generally make more data publicly available; and agency decisions are constrained by metrics other than merely the Constitution. Perhaps most important, as Genachowski points out, is that agencies are able to regulate and respond to innovation much quicker than Congress—a big upside in an area with constantly changing technology. As long as Congress sets some minimal transparency and participation rules, I see no problem giving the FCC the reins over other details, especially if it finally makes incentive auctions a reality.

What do you think?

Chief Digital Officer for NYC – Roadmap to a Digital City Video

Rachel Sterne
Here is Rachel Sterne, NYC’s Chief Digital Officer, discussing a four-point plan for advancing technology in NYC. The four points—which are useful for any city government—are as follows:

  1. Access to technology, e.g., expanding the access to wireless Internet
  2. Open government, e.g., sharing more information with developers
  3. Engagement, e.g., using more social media, specifically Twitter, Youtube, and Tumblr
  4. Industry, e.g., welcoming start-ups and engaging developers
In the video, from October 2011, she shares examples of each goal.


Which states have the most Section 8 housing per person?

I recently used open data from HUD about public-housing inventory and Census population data to examine which states had the most Section 8 housing units per person in 2010. (Section 8 is a federally subsidized program for low-income renters.) Here’s the top 6 and bottom 6:

which states have the most section 8 housing

I’m not surprised that DC is number one, since it has the nation’s highest poverty rate. Nor am I surprised that NYC, with its relatively well-organized housing initiatives, is number two. But what about Massachusetts and North Dakota? Any ideas? Here’s a visualization of this data:

Section 8 Housing per State Map