House under construction

Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

The Promise of Big Data for Accelerating ‘Prosperity Development’

From time to time, Housing Perspectives features posts by guest bloggers. This post was written by Ben Hecht, President and Chief Executive Officer of Living Cities.  His post reflects thoughts he shared at a Brown Bag Lecture delivered at the Harvard Kennedy School on November 1, 2012.  His talk was entitled “From Community to Prosperity.”

Recently, I was asked to contribute a chapter to Investing in What Works for America’s Communities, a book that examines what we can learn from the history of community development and provides a multitude of ideas from diverse perspectives about the future of the field. My essay, entitled From Community to Prosperity emphasizes that powerful forces of change, such as globalization and the internet, have transformed the way that people live, work, and interact; and that the community development industry has failed to adequately adapt to these seismic changes. Today, there is a new ‘social operating system’ that is in stark contrast to the one that was built around geography and small tight-knit groups. We must fundamentally re-think how we define “community”, and change the way that we work to reflect the needs and realities of the present and the future. I call this new, broader, focus ‘prosperity development’.  Prosperity development requires us to invest in new models for collective problem-solving that acknowledge that no one institution or sector can solve today’s increasingly interconnected and complex problems alone. It requires overhauling long-broken systems. And, it requires harnessing new technologies in creative ways to accelerate social change efforts.

There is no ‘accelerant’ with greater promise than Big Data, which a recent New York Times article described as “shorthand for advancing trends in technology that open the door to a new approach to understanding the world and making decisions.” Today, more data is being created from more places than ever before. Tweets, clicks, YouTube videos, retailer loyalty cards, cell phones, even sensors on buildings are producing tons of data daily. Trends in public sector data transparency are adding even more valuable data to the mix. In order to turn the promise of Big Data into reality, we must make a real commitment to more evidence-driven decision making, and be willing to challenge entrenched ideas and beliefs. The benefits of such a commitment are significant and have the potential to make cities much better places for all residents:

1. Better Decisions about People and Places. Many people often criticize government for making decisions without full consideration or understanding of the facts. Big Data can really change that. If harnessed right, it can allow us to make better decisions about people and places. On the people side, data collection systems have evolved rapidly over the last decade with more sophisticated and varied sources for capturing information including 311 calls, educational performance and health care. On the place side, more buildings, roads and machines today have sensors that are providing data 24/7 about volume of usage, energy consumption, etc., what people often refer to as the Internet of Things. This proliferation of data enables us to tie an array of decisions to real-time, current and substantial data sets.

2. Opportunities for Accelerating Technology for Civic Change. The growing trend of the public sector to make more of its data open to the public has led to an explosion of innovation and is redefining how citizens participate and interact with their government. To date, ‘civic tech’, or the building of apps based on public data, has focused on improving civic life generally, from real-time bus schedules to virtual land use planning. However, it’s not hard to imagine how civic tech, intentionally applied to the lives of low-income people and communities, could be transformational – from changing the relationship between police and neighborhoods to enabling online appointment scheduling and enrollment for public benefits that now force people to take off work or suffer face-to-face humiliations.

3. Predictive Possibilities. The predictive power of Big Data is being explored and will be a big part of improving fields as diverse as health care, economic development and education. We are already seeing the potential to use big data to predict student performance in states like North Carolina where education leadersare using high-tech data analytics to examine grades, attendance, course failures, declines in grade point average, and disciplinary incidents of elementary school students to predict who might be at risk of falling of track and even failing to graduate high school. Big data’s predictive power is also of increasing interest to police forces that face greater limitations due to municipal budget constraints. New efforts are emerging in cities to map the location and time of crimes to better understand where police need to be and when to provide the greatest benefit to communities. This predictive element of big data can dramatically improve effectiveness and drive efficiency and this will be one of the most exciting areas for cities to focus on especially as more and more of theworld’s population continues to move to metropolitan areas.

As we work to move the community development sector into the future, a fundamental question will be: How can we harness Big Data for common good?