Category Archives: Data

Help Chicago Zoo Track Animals!

Coccycolius iris -Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, Illinois, USA-8aHere’s a bit of city/data news, from CityLab, that you (and I) can actually help with.

The Urban Wildlife Institute at the Lincoln Park Zoo has created an interactive website, Chicago Wildlife Watch, “to help the Institute document and study the animals that live in Chicagoland” by viewing photos taken from cameras around the city and tagging which animals are in them.

As Lex Berko at CityLab explains:

According to the Institute’s director Seth Magle, who spoke to Chicago’sRedEye last week, this work used to fall under the purview of interns. As the Institute ramped up its identification efforts, the onslaught of photos—they currently have more than a million—became too much for their team to handle, so they decided to crowdsource. To date, more than 91,000 animals have been identified through Chicago Wildlife Watch.

I played around with the website, and there seems to be a lot of squirrels, and sometimes nothing, but that just makes it more exciting to find a deer or skunk.

Chicago’s Leadership Role in Suburban America

I just started what is so far an excellent book by Elaine Lewinnek,  an associate professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. The book is called “The Working Man’s Reward,” and I wanted to plug it here. It grabbed me from the introduction, which proclaims that “Chicago’s first product was real estate.” She promises to examine how the dream of homeownership—heavily shaped in many ways by people and events in Chicago—has affected the urban and suburban landscape throughout America.

Lewinnek nicely summarizes some of her ideas at the end of the book’s introduction:

[R]eal estate is a particularly interesting product, offering to produce further profits while providing shelter, class status, community, access to jobs, and investment equity. Real estate decisions can affect health, educational opportunities, physical mobility, and ultimately class mobility. Real estate matters, so much so that riots erupted over it. [See Lewinnek’s blog post about Chicago’s 1919 race riots tied to property values.] As Chicagoans sorted out what a modern city would look like—through land speculation, boosterism, two riots, and many barely conscious, often-constrained choices—they developed a city form that affects the sprawling and often racially divided spaces that all Americans have inherited.

I’m eager to dig into many parts of this book, but one that stands out at the outset is its study of how innovative local initiatives often quickly spread to other municipalities—an idea I’ve written about before. Whet Moser, interviewing Lewinnek for Chicago Magazine, paraphrased her thesis as being about how Chicago “invented” the suburbs. In that interview, she describes how some of the first zoning laws were “fire limits” that came out of the great Chicago fire. The new building rules forbade wooden houses in the city, and that forced workers to live further from their places of work. Usefully, she “reject[s] monocausal explanations” for why the Chicago model spread, arguing that it was a complex combination of different social and political forces at work at the time. She also sees lessons for the future from her study, as summarized in this part of her interview with Moser:

At the end of the book, you argue that learning from this past is a way of preparing for the future. What did you learn in researching the book that you think we should learn from?

The things that people developed on their own—the real struggles to own humble, small houses, were things that they clung to. With the institutionalization of public housing, the small houses were bulldozed and people were put into huge towers that didn’t end up being good places to live. Now we’re going back to public housing that looks more suburban, more dispersed. Part of what working-class Chicagoans invented in the late 19th century and the early 20th century is some of what we might be coming full circle to.

And some of those possibilities, too, of living in diverse spaces; being conscious of the whole range of suburbs. To me those are kind of exciting possibilities.

Lewinnek blogs at Elaine’s Blog.

On Portland, Semi-retired Youth, and the Best Places to Live

The New York Times Magazine has a great piece out this week about Portland and how it is attracting young educated folks despite not having jobs suited for their skills. They are coming for its vibe, for lack of a better term. There are lots of tidbits of data in the article, about Portland and other cities. But this discussion about “the sacrifice measure” was the one that fascinated me the most:

David Albouy, an economics professor at the University of Illinois, has created a metric, the sacrifice measure, which essentially charts how poor a person is willing to be in order to live in a particular city. Portland, he discovered, is near the top of the list. Even when college-educated residents get jobs there, they earn 84 cents for the average dollar earned in other cities, according to Greg Schrock and Jason Jurjevich, professors of urban studies at Portland State University. In 41 of the country’s 50 largest cities, young, educated people earn more than they do in Portland. “It’s a buyer’s market for labor,” Schrock says.

I found a paper Albouy published in 2012, Are Big Cities Bad Places to Live? Estimating Quality of Life across Metropolitan Areas, that ranked cities by quality of life. It doesn’t discuss his “sacrifice measure” but does have an interesting ranking of metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas by established quality of life. Here’s the top  50. Portland is all the way down at 44, but the west coast definitely dominates the list.

Continue reading On Portland, Semi-retired Youth, and the Best Places to Live

What Affordable Housing Should Afford: Housing for Resilient Cities

This post’s title is the title of a new paper in HUD’s Cityscape journal, Volume 16, Number 2, page 21. In it, a group of urban-planning experts from MIT argue, “Well-designed affordable housing involves more than the provision of safe decent, and inexpensive shelter; it needs to be central to the resilience of cities.”

They then list four goals for affordable housing:

  1. Support the community social structure and economic livelihoods of residents.

  2. Reduce the vulnerability of residents to environmental risks and stresses.

  3. Enhance the personal security of residents in the face of violence or threats of displacement.

  4. Empower communities through enhances capacities to share in their own governance.

I like the concept of city “resilience,” and the paper spends a little time usefully describing that idea. The rest of the paper gives detailed accounts of efforts to design housing to meet these goals.


New government buzzwords

The New Republic ran delightful little piece last month about the buzzword “disruptive.” Author Judith Shevitz argues that the inventor of the term “disruptive innovation,” which originally applied to the tech industry, has let it spin out of control, so that it’s being applied to areas like education and public health. This trend, she says, is “a category error” because “[n]ot all civil services need to be hyper-efficient and bargain-basement and in a state of permanent revolution, especially when the private entities tasked with disrupting government operate largely outside public view.”

I think her point is well taken, but I particularly enjoyed the story art, which mocks vacuous buzzwords generally. This got me thinking about some of the buzzwords I’m guilty of using. Of course, first and foremost is the title of this blog, as “data-driven” is  ill-defined jargon. I decided to plot a few terms using Google’s ngram, which charts how often terms appear in Google Books over time (click the hypertext to see a clear version of the chart below).

buzzword ngram


There’s no real conclusion to draw here, but I thought the information was interesting regardless. Not suprisely, terms like data-driven, public-private, and civic engagement have increased dramatically in use in recent years. Intriguingly, “urban renewal” has been surpassed in use by “e-government.”

New interactive infographic rates risks in all 50 states

After the jump is a new infographic that was suggested as a follow up to my post highlighting that three Detroit neighborhoods had topped the list of most dangerous places to live. Just as depressingly, this map pulls data from various sources to rank all 50 states based on the terrible things that could happen to you there. You can check out the original webpage here. Notably for midwesterners, Illinois and Michigan are ranked 40th and 44th respectively for murders per 100,000 people (with rank 51 being the worst and going to D.C.), and Illinois has the highest percentage of adults reporting poor mental health (according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of CDC data). Obnoxiously, as you’ll see if you interact with the map, the states are color-coded by total number of murders and traffic fatalities, even though the title for those sections says “per 100,000.” To clarify the accurate info click “see the data behind the rankings.” Continue reading New interactive infographic rates risks in all 50 states

Renting versus owning: how homeowners come out ahead

I’m doing more digging into the 2011 American Housing Survey, as a follow up to this weekend’s post about the age of American housing.

The survey breaks down “owner occupied” versus “renter occupied” units, and the differences between them are compelling. In particular, the survey hints at public-health downsides to renting, though these results are likely tied more to poverty than to the fact a person is renting as the data does not account for socioeconomic status. Nonetheless, here are some interesting statistics.

1. Renters share bedrooms more often.


As you can see, around 50% of households in either category have .51 to 1 person per bedroom. But for households with 1.51 or more people per bedroom, the renter category jumps to more than 20%, while only 6.7% of owner-occupied households are that crowded.

2. Renters are more likely to have unsafe drinking water.

Frankly, it’s amazing to me that nearly 10% of people in the United States are without safe drinking water, but it’s worse for renters than for homeowners.

3. Renters have more problems with pests, bad wiring, and holes in floors and walls.


As you can see, homeowners have more mice problems, but that’s about it. Renters have more problems with rats and much more problems with open cracks or holes, exposed wiring, and cockroaches. I’ve experienced that last one while renting in the Deep South, and it’s terrible.

4. Renters are less healthy.

Maybe it’s because of all the other things mentioned, but renters report being in “very good” health less often than homeowners. Although both categories of people have the same number of people who reported “excellent” health, renters also report “poor” health more than homeowners.


Let me know your thoughts on the comments below.

The age of housing in the United States

The Census Bureau recently released the results of the 2011 American Housing Survey. One noteworthy point for me was how old housing is in the U.S. The data basically shows a rough bell curve peaking between 1950 and 1979. The median year was 1974, 34 years ago. This number has crept up since 1985, when the median house age was only 23, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

age of houses in the united states

For more analysis on this issue, check out this article from a few years ago. It shows which states had the highest concentration of old housing at that time. A surprising amount of it is in the Midwest, with Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio all in the top ten.

The varying costs of medical services by state

health symbolEarlier this summer, the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services published interesting data on the charges submitted by hospitals in all 50 states for 30 different outpatient services. The Center published the amount ultimately paid for the services, and similar data for 100 different inpatient services.

As an example, I decided to create a visualization showing the varying average costs of one type of outpatient service, “Level II Cardiac Imaging,” by state (except for Maryland, which wasn’t included in the dataset). Keep in mind as you look at these charges that Medicare paid out a national average of $744.58 for the procedure, even though the national average submitted charge was more than $4,000. After clicking the image below, you can see exact amounts by hovering over a particular state:


As you can see, the amounts charged value greatly. In my view, these differences confirm at least two things. First, this data shows just how easy it might be to submit overcharges, given the wide discrepancies, and thus why the Obama administration saw a pressing need to crack down on Medicaid and Medicare fraud.

This data also unmasks America’s broken system for pricing medical procedures. Wired ran a great piece last year about this problem. The article noted that “a recent study of the costs of routine appendectomies performed throughout California” showed that, for nearly the same procedure, “the charges varied more than 100-fold—from $1,529 at the cheapest to $182,955 at the most expensive.” The article concluded that “Job One” was “transparency in treatment, cost, and institutions.” This data release is not perfect transparency, but it’s a good start.

Apparently, one reason for the price differences may be the migration of these services from doctors’ offices to hospital outpatient departments, which often charge more. Complicated, eh?

Detroit tops list of most dangerous neighborhoods

Detroit netted the first 3 spots on NeighborhoodScout’s recent list of the 25 most dangerous neighborhoods in America. The Midwest sadly dominates this list. Chicago is on there four times. Overall, the Midwest takes 14 of the top 25 (if you include St. Louis). In the top two neighborhoods in Detroit (W Chicago / Livernois Ave and Mack Ave / Helen St) you have a 1 in 7 chance of becoming a victim within a year. Here’s the link to the full list.