Vacant property registration continues to spread

file0001899021898I’ve been following vacant property registration ordinances since the start of this blog. Earlier this month I noted a recent working paper about these ordinances spearheaded by Dan Immergluck from Georgia Tech University, who has a long-term project tracking them. In that paper, he says, “As of May 2012, there were more than 550 local VPROs in the U.S., up from fewer than 20 in 2000 and less than 100 at the end of 2007.” (There is a podcast of him discussing the project that you can download here. And I’d like to add that Immergluck wrote an excellent book, Foreclosed: High-Risk Lending, Deregulation, and the Undermining of America’s Mortgage Market, which anyone interesting in the mortgage crisis should read. It currently has 5 stars at Amazon.com.)

This month, the number of ordinances appears to be steadily rising, as a Google News search quickly turned up eight articles from this month alone about different ordinances under consideration, in six separate states! (And not all local governments post their activities in a readily searchable form.) The municipalities considering proposed registration ordinances include Springfield, Ohio; Cambridge, OhioDover, Delaware; Riverton, Pennsylvania; Richmond, California; Kern County, CaliforniaAuburn, New York; and St. Petersburg, Florida.

I hope that these ordinances work out for these municipalities, by which I mean I hope that they can maintain their vacant property stock and generate revenue. Jersey City, for example, recently revealed that it plans to add $250,000 with its new vacant property registration program. [Editor update: Original link broken, read about the program here.] My only advice is that, as I’ve said before, vigorous enforcement of these laws by local officials is the sole way to bring in that kind of money.

The FCC issues new rules for signal boosters

The FCC has issued new rules for cell-signal boosting devices. Because these devices use the same spectrum as normal cell signals, the cellphone industry was very concerned that these devices would hurt their services to regular users. Thus, creating these new rules took many years. But as the head of boosting-device-manufacturer Wilson Electronics explained to AllThingsD, by regulating these boosting devices, the FCC is able to set standards to prevent low quality boosters from chewing up spectrum.

So the final result hopefully satisfies the cellphone companies and the boosters—and the American people. As Twice explains, “[a]ll four nationwide carriers and many rural and regional carriers have consented to the use of boosters as long as the boosters meet the new technical specifications.” The FCC emphasizes the importance of these rules as follows:

Signal boosters represent a cost-effective means of improving our nation’s wireless infrastructure. Mobile voice and mobile broadband services are increasingly important to consumers and to our nation’s economy. While nearly the entire U.S. population is served by one or more wireless providers, coverage gaps that exist within and at the edge of service areas can lead to dropped calls, reduced data speeds, or complete loss of service.

Robust signal boosters can bridge these gaps and extend coverage at the fringe of service areas. Signal boosters are particularly useful in rural and difficult-to-serve indoor environments, such as office buildings and hospitals. Signal boosters can also improve public safety communications by enabling the public to connect to 911 in areas where wireless coverage is deficient or where an adequate communications signal is blocked or shielded.

There are separate rules for consumer boosters and “industrial boosters,” the kind used in “stadiums, airports, office buildings, hospitals, tunnels, and educational campuses,” according to the FCC.

Cook County webcast this Friday on new Socrata Data Portal

Here’s an exciting announcement for those of us in Cook County. The County is following the City of Chicago’s lead to create a state-of-the-art data portal at data.cookcountyil.gov. I’m particularly interested in the “courts” data. Here’s a press release for webcast about the portal this Friday (and a couple of other events that are part of Cook County’s “Open Data Week”).

On Friday, April 27th, the County, the State of Illinois, and Socrata, a data archive company, will live stream a webcast on the new regional data portal, MetroDataChicago.org (http://metrochicagodata.org).  During the broadcast, viewers will learn more about how the portal works, how to use data found there, and what are the goals of the County and State going forward.

The County will also release new and updated datasets.

The County is also partnering with global Big Data Week (http://bigdataweek.com) for an international angle to local data.  Big Data is an emerging data science that allows organizations to analyze very large datasets, find patterns, create predictive models, and help understand more about the vast amounts of data generated by the public.  During Big Data Week, Cook County is hosting a webinar showcasing the projects and achievements of local Big Data developers on April 27th, and co-sponsoring a hackathon competition on April 28th.

Featured Websites: Crowdsourcing disease surveillance

Today I’m spotlighting a few websites that track real-time health information.

One neat site is Healthmap.org, a site that scans news reports and gives an hourly update about health concerns worldwide, pinpointing the location on a map. It says it’s a go-to place for disease-surveillance experts, and I can see why: The site does a good job of consolidating information about outbreaks and quickly showing where they are concentrated. Here’s its promo video:

Another new website, sickweather.com, is focused on collecting information from social networks. Users can (1) input their health symptoms or (2) let sickweather’s algorithm crawl their Facebook and Twitter feeds for reports of illiness. Then, that data is used to show where in the US certain symptoms are cropping up most often. As reported in Fast Company, it’s named “sickweather” because, “just as Doppler radar scans the skies for indicators of bad weather, Sickweather scans social networks for indicators of illness.” Yet as John Metcalfe at Atlantic Cities points out, it looks like some cities have a bulk of the users so far, so until it catches on, it’s more just for fun. And since it relies on user self-reports and has no fact-checker, it may be less accurate than healthmap, which relies on articles that have are vetted in some way. Sickweather, however. has the potential to catch outbreaks much earlier in their lifecycle than healthmap; it’d be great if the two services could be integrated.

One final project that has the potential to catch diseases early on is Google’s Flu Trends, which uses search terms that, Google says, “are good indicators of flu activity” to provide a visualization of which countries have the worst flu activity. Google also has a tool for tracking Dengue fever.

These technologies are an important leap forward. And the more people who know about it, the better the technology gets, at least in regard to sickweather.com. So, check it out.

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.

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?

Why Municipal Law Matters to City 2.0

Being a lawyer, I think it’s time I wrote a post about law. I want to address an important topic: Where does a city’s authority to innovate come from? And how much authority does it have? I’ve noticed that these questions are seldom addressed in discussions on city planning, even though they are key to a city’s ability to innovate, engage in smart growth, and respond to problems identified through open-data programs.

First, the basics. The predominant American framework for city authority comes from an influential 1872 book on municipal law by John Dillon, a state and federal judge. Dillon proposed that municipalities only have those powers expressly granted by their state legislature. (In contrast, a state has inherent power to regulate its citizens, constrained only by the state and federal constitutions.) The U.S. Supreme Court adopted Dillon’s formulation in 1891 and confirmed the rule in 1907 in Hunter v. Pittsburgh, 207 U.S. 161, which allowed Pennsylvania to consolidate the cities of Pittsburgh and Allegheny. The state is supreme, the Court said, and may “at its pleasure” change or destroy a city’s powers, even the city itself, “with or without the consent of the citizens, or even against their protest.” Within two decades, this rule—now called “Dillon’s Rule”—was so well established that academic debate about its propriety all but disappeared.

You can imagine the tension this rule might cause between innovative cities and states with outdated laws that unnecessarily constrain city power. This tension is best illustrated by an example.

Genesee County, Michigan, where I am from, is fighting a well-publicized battle with large numbers of vacant and abandoned properties. The County developed a solution: planned shrinkage. But to do that, the County needed an efficient way to gain ownership of vacant properties. The County could gain ownership through tax foreclosure, but Michigan’s archaic tax laws kept properties held up in the tax-foreclosure process for up to 7 years. Having no power to write its own tax laws, the County had to wait for Michigan’s legislature to streamline the tax-foreclosure process, an action it took in 1999. Tax-foreclosure in Michigan now takes 2 to 3 years, and the property goes to the Genesee County Land Bank, which manages the property with the goal of stabilizing and revitalizing the area.

There are ways a state can give their cities more autonomy: Some write into their constitution that cities have power to regulate local issues; other states, like California, authorize “charter” cities that are allowed to write their own local governing documents. Notice, however, that even in those states, cities are limited to addressing local, not statewide or regional, concerns. This limitation becomes significant when cities go beyond local planning and address regional problems such as transportation systems or environmental degradation.

Yet full city autonomy, permitted in Argentina and Spain, is probably not the solution in the United States, which already has two strong levels of government—state and federal—that must coordinate which each other. One source I find particularly helpful is the work of Gerald Frug and David Barron, two professors at Harvard Law, who advocate in their 2008 book, City Bound: How States Stifle Urban Innovation, that states, instead of authorizing pure city autonomy, should update their outdated municipal laws so cities can pursue specific strategic goals, including raising revenue, regulating land use, and reforming schools.

The bottom line for cities is that they must be aware of their limitations and, in charting city growth, must plan to address those areas of state law that might need to change. As for state governments, they must recognize the limited nature of city government and strive to make the changes to state law that are necessary to support the cities of the future.

As a final note, to clear up some misconceptions I’ve noticed online: Dillon’s Rule and “home rule” are not mutually exclusive. Even in states that embrace the concept of “home rule” (as almost all of them so), city power is granted by the states. Although there are variations by state, “home rule” simply means, in essence, that cities have been given broad authority over local concerns, though that authority is still granted and limited by the state constitution or legislation. Sometimes, the grant of broad authority was done so long ago, through the state constitution, that people assume the city has inherent power apart from a state grant, and that’s not true. For example, Frug and Barron list three ways that “home rule” provisions confine local-government power (even as they broaden it): states sometimes (1) limit city power to “local” concerns, (2) prohibit cities from regulating “private or civil affairs,” or (3) deny cities the power to tax.

Should cities sell ads on landmarks?

Statute of Liberty

I have advertising on the mind after watching Morgan Spurlock’s “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” and I want to address Rahm Emanuel’s initiative to put ads onChicago city property, including trash cans, parking pay boxes, and the pillars of a historic bridge in a high-traffic area (click here to see a picture of the first ad—from Bank of America).

The mayor’s team estimates the city can raise $25 million this way. In response to aesthetic worries, Emanuel said that “there are some places where advertising might be a beautification, given some of the things of the infrastructure” (as reported by Fox News Chicago).

Unsurprisingly, the initiative has critics. Blair Kamin at the Chicago Tribune’s Cityscapes blog calls the bridge advertisement “short-sighted,” “tasteless,” and “clueless,” arguing that the historic bridge is “civic art that expresses the city’s highest aspirations and should not be subject to commercial clutter.”

It’s easy to see why the mayor would be eager to boost the budget with ad money. But he may be overlooking variables that are harder to quantify than direct advertising dollars. Will the ads, over time, affect Chicago’s tourism industry? Will it drive businesses away? In the short term, probably not. There is no doubt a certain level of ads that residents, businesses, and even tourists will tolerate, and I don’t think that this initiative will cross that threshold.

Spurlock briefly addresses city advertising in “The Greatest,” visiting São Paulo (the largest city in Brazil), which banned outdoor advertising in 2006.  As of 2011, 70% of residents found the ban—which uncovered the city’s historic architecture—“beneficial,” and companies in São Paulo have discovered new marketing methods, particularly online, reports Good Magazine. The ban also uncovered urban slums, reports the Center for a New American Dream, but at least those problems are now in the open and being addressed by residents.

But another take-away from Spurlock’s movie is that Americans have an amazing tolerance for advertising. So, again, I think Emanuel’s plan will plow ahead. It’s too bad that the initiative is being rolled out just in time for the 2012 G8 Summit in Chicago, but at the same time, I’m sure it’s not cheap to host the summit. When viewed as Chicago trading a little bit of tourist-city cred for a dose of global-city cred, the plan starts to make sense.

My favorite part of the movie is watching Spurlock market shoes to Ralph Nader:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLQd8ZTeYlI]

How is 2009 federal stimulus to NYC being used?

I was surprised at first by this info about how money provided to NYC through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is being used. But then I realized that most of the stimulus money is going to private parties, not the city, and isn’t counted in these stats. I still didn’t know, however, that so much money was given to education in the federal stimulus. For an interactive chart, go here.

This pattern is not unique to NYC. As Sam Dillon reported in the New York Times, the stimulus funding “was the largest one-time infusion of federal education dollars to states and districts in the nation’s history.”

The total was around $100 billion nationwide, and again as reported by the New York Times, here’s how it was spent:

About $65 billion of the $100 billion in education stimulus money went to states in three pots: $39.5 billion as part of a stabilization fund intended to bolster the finances of state public education systems, $13 billion for the federal program for poor students known as Title I, and $12.2 billion for students with disabilities. Congress directed the rest of the $100 billion to smaller initiatives, including $4.3 billion to a school improvement grant program the Obama administration calls Race to the Top.

(The last one, Race to the Top, is a program that’s similar to many of the city App Contests sprouting up all over the country. It puts up a pot of money that schools can compete for through innovations and advances in education.)

Money well spent?