This is an Urbanscale Weeknote titled “Week 6: Data needs spokespeople, and vice versa,” written by Adam Greenfield in San Francisco on the 13th of February 2011.

Week 6: Data needs spokespeople, and vice versa

Adam Greenfield on 13 February 2011

- I’m on my way back to NYC from San Francisco, where I’ve had the very great pleasure of attending Stamen’s Citytracking “data and cities conference.” This was an event that brought policy folks, economists, community managers, experts in digital cartography, technologists and journalists together to consider the place where information, its management and especially its visualization intersect with civic life.

A year ago, maybe, I’d have said that one of the most important things a gathering of this sort could do would be to puncture the aura of impeccability around the notion of “the data”: the idea that particular soundings of the world have somehow become neutral and inarguable by virtue of being encoded in a database or plotted on a map. But at least among this particular collection of people — and I have no way of knowing how representative of their respective communities they happen to be, but I’m hopeful that the answer is “more so than otherwise” — the discussion has finally moved beyond that.

I think most, if not all, of the people in the room at Citytracking would agree that there’s inevitably a politics embedded in the praxis of data acquisition, just as there’s a politics embedded in the aesthetics of display and a politics of interpretation. Accepting this, we can graduate to the much more interesting question of how data and its various user-facing manifestations can be practically mobilized in the everyday struggles of urban life. And not merely in the sense of a single visualization deployed and then forgotten about, either; we would appear to have reached a coming-of-age moment, in which data-driven depictions of the world can inform the situation they aim to reflect, which in turn is seen to evolve in response.

A really splendid example of what this looks like in practice is the Bike Accident Tracker developed by Tasneem Raja and her team at the Bay Citizen. As the name implies, Accident Tracker starts by plotting every bike accident reported to the San Francisco Police Department in the last two years on a map of the city. But it doesn’t end with the map — in other words, it isn’t simply a “data visualization.” It is, rather, a suite of tools that work on multiple levels and in multiple ways, in service to multiple communities.

Firstly and most obviously, it provides all parties, but especially active cyclists, with a visceral and immediate read on where the trouble spots are, where a rider is statistically most likely to get hit. This is actionable in the most immediate sense, in that it both allows people to plot alternate, safer routes through the city, and hopefully spurs them to extra caution when passing through those problematic intersections.

But it also furnishes users, riders and non-riders both, with various other analytical lenses through which to consider the data. These reveal patterns of fact which may be less immediately likely to lead to action in response, but which definitely inform the larger debate. At what times of day are accidents most likely to happen? Who tends to be at fault? What percentage of accidents are reported to the police? (This latter quantity can be gleaned by comparing the number of user-submitted accidents — incidents that haven’t, for one reason or another, been captured by the SFPD data set — to the total number of dots on the map.)

Finally, it gives journalists — the Citizen‘s own, obviously, but also anyone who wants to step up to the challenge — the hooks on which good research and reportage will build a story. Then, finally, we can get into the really interesting and productive arguments: if “the difference in accidents before and after” the introduction of separated bike lanes on Market Street “is negligible,” was the investment justified? Would you still answer the same way if reporting revealed that bicyclists feel safer? As a voter and taxpayer, is that qualitative, subjective improvement in affect real enough to hang policy and expenditure on? Or is the only valid metric the one that shows up as dots on the map?

These are the kind of contentious debates Bike Accident Tracker seems designed to provoke; whatever your perspective, you can’t simply slap it on the table and declare your point proven. If this seems like a step backward, I’d argue the opposite. This strikes me as a very welcome sign of maturation in the field, the point at which all the means and methods of data gathering, visualization and analysis become completely normal things to invoke in the everyday politics of the city. If, in Liz Goodman‘s words, “data needs spokespeople,” the converse is also true, and tools like Bike Accident Tracker furnish those spokespeople with the argumentative support they’ll need.

Beyond this, I was also well pleased to hear City of San Francisco’s Jay Nath discussing the “government operating system,” by which it was clear he meant something very similar to what we mean when we talk about “frameworks for citizen responsiveness.” I won’t go into this in depth now, as we’ll be revisiting the question in some detail shortly, but for the moment I’ll just say I’m delighted to hear someone speaking from the government side of the house who so clearly seems to get it.

- Mayo and I have been working hard on our transmobility presentation to BDigital, the Barcelona Digital Technology Centre, which we’ll be shipping to the client shortly, and sharing with you very soon thereafter.

- This Tuesday evening in New York City is the party and auction in support of Urban Omnibus. We’ll be attending, and you should too.

- With all the legitimately amazing, world-historical events in the news over the last week, it seems almost silly to mention that I’ve been quoted in two different pieces in the New York Times Technology section in the last three days: the first about Nokia’s engineering-driven culture, and the second about skeuomorphism in interface design. Thanks to Nick Bilton and Josh Brustein at the Times for taking notice.

- Coming up next week: AG and MN in the shop all week. Ping us if you’re in the neighborhood and want to grab a quick coffee.