Academic research with all that location data collected by smartphones

If you really want to understand places in the United States, wouldn’t the location data collected by smartphone apps be useful?

At least 75 companies receive anonymous, precise location data from apps whose users enable location services to get local news and weather or other information, The Times found. The database reviewed by The Times — a sample of information gathered in 2017 and held by one company — reveals people’s travels in startling detail, accurate to within a few yards and in some cases updated more than 14,000 times a day.

These companies sell, use or analyze the data to cater to advertisers, retail outlets and even hedge funds. It is a hot market, with sales of location-targeted advertising reaching an estimated $21 billion this year. IBM has gotten into the industry, with its purchase of the Weather Channel’s apps…

To evaluate location-sharing practices, The Times tested 20 apps, most of which had been flagged by researchers and industry insiders as potentially sharing the data. Together, 17 of the apps sent exact latitude and longitude to about 70 businesses. Precise location data from one app, WeatherBug on iOS, was received by 40 companies. When contacted by The Times, some of the companies that received that data described it as “unsolicited” or “inappropriate.”…

Apps form the backbone of this new location data economy. The app developers can make money by directly selling their data, or by sharing it for location-based ads, which command a premium. Location data companies pay half a cent to 2 cents per user per month, according to offer letters to app makers reviewed by The Times.

Sure, this could all be monetized for advertising purposes. But, it’s longer-lasting influence could come in helping us better understand location patterns across people. There are many different ways to understand places, the sets of human activity and meaning associated with particular spatial arrangements. The location data from apps could reveal all sorts of interesting things: commuter patterns and responses to traffic/delays, how far people travel from home or work for certain activities, where leisure time is spent, and how locations differ across various demographics (race/ethnicity, social class, gender, age, etc.).

What are the odds that this data will be made available to researchers? Very slim. But, I hope someone is able to get access to it and find some intriguing patterns in urban and suburban life.

 

Chicago architects as political lobbyists

The tension between the art and business sides of architecture is evident in a new report from the Chicago Tribune:

A virtual who’s who of Chicago architects has given tens of thousands of dollars to City Council members who hold near-total power to determine whether their projects get built, a Tribune investigation has found. Architects even have hosted fundraisers for aldermen…

The bulk of the money flows to City Council members in Chicago’s fast-growing wards. The architects and their developer clients have reason to stay on good terms with aldermen, who hold the power to advance a project, send it back to the drawing board or kill it.

From the start of the current building boom in 2010 through mid-November of this year, those with an occupation listed as “architect” have given more than $180,000 to aldermen, their ward organizations, and other city politicians, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illinois campaign finance records show.

The architects’ firms have donated even more, bringing the total haul for politicians to well over $350,000.

One sociological study of the field of architecture, Larson’s 1994 book Behind the Postmodern Facade: Architectural Change in Late Twentieth-Century America, discusses how architects found themselves in the postwar era needing business, therefore designing a lot of buildings with little aesthetic beauty or input, yet wanting to privilege the artistic and aesthetic side of the discipline.

This also echoes research on urban growth machines which tend to emphasize the role of business leaders and politicians in stimulating and carrying out urban development for the sake of profits. This report suggests architects are part of this game too; by donating money and hosting events, they can help ensure they see profit from new development projects (as opposed to other firms participating or projects not getting off the ground.

Does the knowledge that architects are part of the power games that help determine the physical and social structures of a city sully their work? Or, does it shed light on how cities actually come to pass where even those supposedly devoted to beauty and the experience of a structure participate in lobbying?

What I can learn through regular walks in my suburban neighborhood

Echoing earlier posts about how to learn about a suburb and next steps in learning about a suburb, I recently gave a talk that included what I learned through regular walks in my suburban neighborhood. With several walks a week, here is what I could learn:

-Marking the changing of seasons through different signs in nature (from flowers blooming to lawns mowed frequently to changing leaves) as well as seasonal decorations.

-Inspecting how yards are maintained (weeds, landscaping, leaves, and all) throughout the year as well as homes (lawnmowing, home repairs, taking out the garbage, etc.).

-Finding out where water collects after a rain.

-Attending to the various children playing on the playground.

-Hearing birds and seeing animals.

-Viewing the front foyers and rooms of numerous homes.

-Recognizing the neighborhood dogs and joggers.

-Watching various sports teams (mainly baseball and tennis) and individuals practice in the park.

-Observing numerous small interactions between families and friends.

-Noting the growth of several gardens of various sizes.

-Tracking the angle of the sun at different points in the year.

-Wondering at the limited number of children outdoors.

-Having some sense of what people or vehicles are regular in the neighborhood.

All of this would be hard to learn through public records, Google Street View, or driving through the neighborhood.

(Missing from the above list? Encounters with humans is limited as a pedestrian, even though I live on the street. An occasional greeting might be passed but it does not often go past that.)

Ways to develop social norms needed for ride-sharing carpools

Sharing a ride-sharing vehicle with other passengers can lead to problems:

“These days, I’m always worried about if I’m going to get in a car with a passenger who is new to pooling and won’t know how to behave properly,” says Omar Paten, a 36-year-old Brooklyn resident who pines for his carpool of yore in Atlanta, Ga., where he grew up. “It was like there were unwritten rules that everyone knew to follow. No one would eat, no one would smoke, no one would play loud music just out of respect for others.”…

Vanessa Graham didn’t bother to rate one recent ride—she just decided to swear off ride-sharing. The 26-year-old Queens native says her early-morning commute to Manhattan was shattered by a booming beat after two co-passengers joined the ride and plugged an iPhone into the car’s auxiliary cord. Then they started freestyle rapping…

“It was 95 degrees outside! My makeup was literally melting off in the car,” said Ms. Sheppard. Most egregiously he insisted that she was a spoiled American princess who didn’t understand the real struggles of life. “He told me that AC was a luxury not a necessity, and that he never drove with the AC on any of his personal cars. I laughed out loud.”

The article hints that earlier iterations with carpooling worked because knowing your fellow passengers and sharing a vehicle for a long period means that everyone tried to behave. Additionally, the ride-sharing services ask passengers to rate drivers and not other passengers:

One loophole in the app: You can’t rate an obnoxious fellow rider, or even learn who they are, beyond a first name that disappears when the ride is over.

So how do social norms develop in such situations? I could imagine a few paths:

1. The companies provide guidance for passengers on how to act and/or enable drivers or passengers to offer feedback to each other.

2. The press or regulators emphasize stories of bad passengers, either shaming the companies or riders into acting.

3. Passengers observe bad passenger behavior and informally a set of norms arise.

4. Drivers push back consistently against bad passengers.

If I had to guess which one will happen, I would go with #1 as the issue could be one that limits business for particular companies that do not act. How exactly companies would encourage social norms – positive reinforcement? Rating poor behavior? – would be interesting to watch.

Minor league baseball stadiums are not good for economic development

Camden, New Jersey just decided to tear down a baseball stadium that is less than twenty years old. The stadium did not lead to economic development and no team has played there for several years:

Taxpayers spent more than $18 million to build the stadium that would eventually be named Campbell’s Field, as part of a minor league ballpark-building frenzy across New Jersey that saw similar stadiums erected in Newark, Atlantic City, and Somerset—all part of redevelopment schemes that attracted independent minor league teams (that is, minor league teams not affiliated with the Major League Baseball farm system)…

The sad saga of the Camden Riversharks—the Atlantic League team for whom the stadium was built prior to the 2001 season—will come to an official end more than three years after the team picked up and moved to New Britain, Connecticut, leaving Campbell’s Field vacant. The city tried to attract a new team, but after those efforts failed, the Camden County Improvement Authority signed off on a plan to demolish the stadium, according to NJ.com. The Riversharks and Campbell’s Field were supposed to revitalize the impoverished city by being the centerpiece of an economic development plan along the edge of the Delaware River. Now, the demolition of the stadium is the first step in a new $15 million economic development scheme that will turn the site into a complex of athletic fields for Rutgers University’s Camden campus, NJ.com reports…

In the team’s final two seasons, the Riversharks averaged about 3,000 fans per game—which is actually not bad by the standards of independent minor league baseball—but the team never turned a profit and abruptly skipped town in 2015 when negotiations on a new lease stalled.

By then, the ballpark was so deep in debt that it faced foreclosure because the team had missed several lease payments. To bail it out, Camden paid off $3.5 million in outstanding debt and purchased the property. The city planned to impose a new ticket surcharge to cover those costs, but the city only received one payment from the team before it moved away, NJ.com reported last year.

This is a consistent story with sports stadiums: they primarily benefit the teams and their owners, not communities. Local officials and politicians want to be the ones who can say they helped keep a sports team in town or they attracted a new franchise but using public dollars for this effort is not a good investment in the long run.

While the story is not quite the same with tax breaks for corporations, there are some parallels. Communities often want to jumpstart economic development. New businesses, particularly headquarters or large office buildings, as well as stadiums can appear to be good ways to do this. They bring jobs, something every local leader supports. They bring increased status for a community, a less quantifiable feature but still important as communities jockey to attract additional firms and residents. Thus, communities are willing to offer tax breaks in a variety of ways – sometimes to help construct infrastructure, sometimes provided per job created, sometimes to construct the stadium – to beat out other communities. The question of whether the community benefits in tangible ways in the years to come is not often raised.

A related earlier post: championships won by sports teams do not necessarily lead to better outcomes in cities.

“The conceit of the American suburb is that we’re all in a great park together”

In a recent documentary, Michael Pollan discusses the American lawn:

“The conceit of the American suburb is that we’re all in a great park together,” Pollan says in the film. “The lawn symbolizes that continuity.” And yet, Pollan explains, despite the fact that lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the country, Americans tend to avoid spending time on them.

“Pollan raises this question in the film about what our relationship with our front lawn says about our relationship with our neighbors,” Fabrizio told The Atlantic. “I find that really interesting. We don’t go out on our front lawn; we hunker down in the back where no one can see us. I wonder what that says about us and how we all get along these days.”

The lawn of the single-family American home often serves two purposes:

1. A supposed connection to nature. It is evidence that suburbanites want to be away from the city and all its pollution, concrete, and density and instead want to connect with nature. This has a long history in American suburbs dating back to the mid-1800s ideas that suburban homes should be cottages in the woods. The fact that well-manicured lawns do not occur “naturally” in nature does not matter much here.

2. The lawn is a showpiece that is intended to both enhance the impression and value of the home as well as indicate how much the property owner cars about their investment. Regular care and maintenance, usually aimed at producing a green, lush, and relatively low-cut lawn free of weeds and edged by attractive bushes and flowers, broadcasts a message about the class status of the owner.

As Pollan suggests, the front lawn is then not really for use, either by the community (like a park) or the homeowners (who would prefer to limit their outdoor activities to the more private space in back). Indeed, certain activities in the front would be quite odd, such as grilling in the front of the house or placing a swings set in the front lawn.

Naperville considers one of its last greenfield subdivisions

By the early 2000s, the large suburb of Naperville had relatively few large parcels of land where new subdivisions could emerge like they did regularly for decades. One such parcel of land is now up for discussion:

Single-family detached homes are proposed for about 105 acres of the site at Route 59 and 103rd Street, requiring the zoning be changed from agricultural to residential. The remaining eight acres would be rezoned for office, commercial and institutional use to accommodate a new Compass Evangelical Free Church, which already has two Naperville locations and one each in Bolingbrook and Wheaton.

Houses ranging in size from 2,300 to 3,539 square feet would be built on lots ranging from 6,838 to 20,065 square feet, according to plans submitted to the city. There would be multiple floor plans available, and Pulte plans on a “significant setback and buffer from Route 59 to lessen potential impacts on the properties,” the proposal said.

The two-story 38,000-square-foot church would be built at the corner of Route 59 and 103rd Street. It would have a 600-seat worship center, a children’s ministry space, a multipurpose room or gymnasium, second-floor offices, a 5,000-square-foot coffee shop and 307 parking spaces, according to plans.

The requested use deviates from the 2002 Southwest Community Area Plan, which identified the future land use as commercial, senior housing and mixed-density residential. That said, city staff found the Pulte development to be “well-suited and complementary” to the city’s long-term plans, city documents said.

Two reasons why this proposed development makes sense and fits with the existing character of the community:

1. A residential subdivision is consistent with Naperville’s development since 1960. While Naperville has also approved other kinds of developments in certain parts of the suburb, much of the land to the south and west of downtown is now within subdivisions of somewhat sizable homes.

2. The space for a church is not unusual and could be a preferable neighbor compared to commercial or industrial uses. While the church does not generate tax revenues like other possible uses, it also does not present the same kind of noise, light, and traffic issues to nearby neighbors.

One reason the proposal may not make sense for the community:

1. Without many big parcels left, Naperville has limited opportunities to promote other land uses. Another subdivision is consistent with the suburb’s character but is this the long-term direction Naperville wants to go? The reference to the Southwest Community Area Plan is notable as the suburb had thoughts of creating a mixed-use node and even second social center for the community (next to the downtown) on the far Southwest side. Instead, this subdivision will simply add more homes and residents.

In sum, while this may just be another suburban subdivision, this could be a momentous choice by a mature suburb. If Naperville uses this big parcel for homes, does this mean they will seek denser development in their downtown?