Creating Action with Data: Using Data to Increase Equity in Urban Development

Justin Kollar, Niko McGlashan, Sarah Williams

The use of data in urban development is controversial because of the numerous examples showing its use to reinforce inequality rather than inclusion. From the development of Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) maps, which excluded many minority communities from mortgages, to zoning laws used to reinforce structural racism, data has been used by those in power to elevate some while further marginalizing others. Yet data can achieve the opposite outcome by exposing inequity, encouraging dialogue and debate, making developers and cities more accountable, and ultimately creating new digital tools to make development processes more inclusive. Using data for action requires that we build teams to ask and answer the right questions, collect the right data, analyze the data ingeniously, ground-truth the results with communities, and share the insights with broader groups so they can take informed action. This paper looks at the development of two recent approaches in New York and Seattle to measure equity in urban development. We reflect on these approaches through the lens of data action principles (Williams 2020). Such reflections can highlight the challenges and opportunities for furthering the measurement and achievement of equitable development by other groups, such as real estate developers and community organizations, who seek to create positive social impact through their activities.

This paper was presented as part of “Panel 5: How Is Digitalization Changing How Housing Is Planned, Reviewed, and Regulated?” at the symposium Bringing Digitalization Home: How Can Technology Address Housing Challenges?, hosted by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies in March 2022.