Google Maps has now added areas of interest

Check out the redesigned Google Maps and you’ll see areas of interest:

Instead of promoting a handful of dots representing restaurants or shops at the city-view level, the new interface displays orange-colored “areas of interest,” which the company describes simply as “places where there’s a lot of activities and things to do.” In Los Angeles, for example, there’s a big T of orange blocks around Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue in Koreatown, and again on Wilshire’s Miracle Mile, stretching up La Brea Avenue*. In L.A., areas of interest tend to cling to the big boulevards and avenues like the bunching sheath of an old shoelace. In Boston, on the other hand, they tend to be more like blocks than strips. In Paris, whole neighborhoods are blotted orange.

Roads and highways, meanwhile, take on a new, muted color in the interface. This marks a departure from Google’s old design, which often literally showed roads over places—especially in contrast to Apple Maps, as the cartographer Justin O’Beirne hasshown. The new map is less about how to get around than about where to go.

“Areas of interest,” the company’s statement explains, are derived with an algorithm to show the “highest concentration of restaurants, bars, and shops.” In high-density areas, Google candidly explains that it is using humans to develop these zones. Algorithms, of course, are tuned by human engineers. But like Facebook with its News Feed, Google has decided that some attributes of the digital world need a human touch firsthand…

Even with its sliding scales, Google Maps can’t fit every shop in Tokyo in a two-dimensional map. So who gets a spot? It’s not an obvious choice: Analyzing Apple and Google’s maps of New York and London, O’Beirne found that the two companies’ maps had just 10 and 12 percent of their place labels in common. (Likewise, different people will have different businesses pop at them—try it with a friend.)

The title of the article is “All Maps Are Biased. Google Maps’ Redesign Doesn’t Hide It.” This bias could be toward certain businesses or certain areas of the city. When certain businesses or areas are displayed, others are not. But, we could also ask about the commercial imperatives of this mapping: what happens when areas of interest are primarily commercial areas and businesses? Are these always the most interesting spots in cities? When sociologists and others discuss thriving public spaces – whether the mixed use areas of Jane Jacobs or the spots of Cosmopolitan Canopies as noted by Elijah Anderson – they often do include businesses including stores and restaurants. Yet, at the same time, aren’t these spots interesting not only because they offer consumable goods and experiences but because they have a mix of people? Do the people make the spaces or do the businesses?

Particularly if Google Maps is used while driving, people can swoop in and out of these areas of interest. Or, it might alert them to specific areas and encourage a vibrant social scene. We’ll see if areas of interest lead to changing social patterns.

Chicago keeps a low residential property tax rate to keep residents?

As the Chicago Tribune highlights the low residential property tax in Chicago compared to nearby communities, could this be a tactic to stem the population decline of the city?

Chicago homeowners pay less in property taxes than the vast majority of their suburban neighbors, even with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s record property tax increase applied. But business properties are taxed differently in Cook County, resulting in higher tax rates on those parcels in Chicago than nearly all collar county suburbs. Those conclusions emerge from a Tribune analysis of tax rates applied on 2015 bills in 388 city and suburban locations in Cook and the five collar counties.

While housing owners pay less, the business owners of Chicago pay more than their counterparts in the suburbs:

The story is different, however, for those who own city manufacturing plants, offices and shopping centers. They already pay more in property taxes than their counterparts in most suburbs outside Cook County. That gap will only become wider after Emanuel’s tax hike, with Chicago business property owners being taxed at higher rates than those in all but seven collar county towns…

There are plenty of collar county suburbs with room for all types of business development that start to look even more attractive than Chicago, at least in terms of property taxes. In places like Joliet, Downers Grove and Naperville, tax bills on business properties would be half that of equally priced parcels in the city…Deputy Mayor Steve Koch dismissed the business tax differences found in the KPMG study, saying they were not enough to sway business location decisions. He noted recent decisions by Motorola Solutions to move to the city from Schaumburg and ConAgra Foods to move to Chicago from Omaha, Neb., when everyone knew the big property tax hike was coming.

The Tribune suggests one reason for the low residential property tax rates is to not anger voters:

“Because we didn’t have in our leadership the political will to actually tell taxpayers and voters that (more money was needed), frankly folks were sold some snake oil, and they got to believe they could have very low taxes and still have adequate service, and after a while that doesn’t really work,” Martire said. “They should have been (raising property taxes) for a long time, and the pain would have been significantly lower.”

Politicians do need votes. But, to return to the suggestion I made in the opening sentence, I wonder if this is also about keeping residents in Chicago. City leaders argue that businesses are not going to avoid Chicago just because of higher taxes. Chicago has other benefits including other notable businesses, lots of office space, lots of human capital, and numerous attractive cultural and entertainment options. In other words, enough businesses will pay these higher property tax rates in Chicago because there is still money to be made in the city.

Yet, homeowners also consider property tax rates as they look for housing. While Chicago doesn’t suffer from the kind of affordable housing issues as San Francisco or Manhattan, it is still quite expensive in some neighborhoods while suburbs throughout the region provide all sorts of additional housing options as well as jobs and other amenities. Why should many residents stay? Lower property tax rates may just help. And for its international prestige – the seventh-rated global city – Chicago has lost plenty of people in recent decades with a peak of just over 3.6 million in 1950 to just over 2.7 million people today.

Votes and people staying could go together: residents who think the politicians are on their side and then show it by not raising their residential property taxes may be more likely to stay in Chicago.

Chicago named top metro area for business location

For the second straight year, Site Selection picked the Chicago metropolitan area as its top metro of the year:

In fact, 385 companies either expanded or located in Chicago in 2014, resulting in the city being named Site Selection’s Top Metro in the US for the second straight year. The consecutive wins are a pleasant endorsement, says Jeff Malehorn, president and CEO of World Business Chicago…

Chicago’s appeal is hardly surprising. The city’s boasts outstanding transportation and logistical assets, including two international airports, a rail hub and seaport, and stands at the crossroads of major Interstates. Chicago and the region are home to a wealth of talent educated at some of the nation’s premier colleges and universities. Foreign companies looking for a US home are drawn to the city’s diverse ethnic population. “Any company outside the US can look to Chicago and see a home,” says Malehorn.

Project highlights for Chicago in 2014 include:

  • Valence Health — a health services company based in Chicago adding 500 jobs over the next five years;
  • Yelp — the online review and advertising site based in San Francisco, Calif., is opening an office in Chicago and plans to hire 300 employees;
  • Braintree — the global payments platform expanded into a 65,000-sq.-ft. (6,000-sq.-m.) headquarters on the eighth floor of the Merchandise Mart. The company is adding 360 new jobs by 2017.
  • ADM — the food services company opened its new global headquarters in downtown Chicago in August 2014…

In figures released in January, Chicago posted its lowest unemployment rate since April 2008, 6.2 percent. The number of city residents employed in December 2014 increased by more than 38,000. The jobs were mostly attributed to professional and business services, education and health service and transportation and warehousing. Malehorn says diversity is a theme in Chicago’s growth, but so is innovation and disruption.

I wonder how the city’s critics would respond. Even with a perilous budget, state issues, Chicago corruption, and cold weather, Chicago continues to be a desirable site for business. They might say that this all happens in spite of the problems..but how would we know? Regardless, this is another piece of evidence that Chicago deserves its lofty ranking among the top global cities in the world.

Argument: businesses should use scientific method in studying big data

Sociologist Duncan Watts explains how businesses should go about analyzing big data:

A scientific mind-set takes as its inspiration the scientific method, which at its core is a recipe for learning about the world in a systematic, replicable way: start with some general question based on your experience; form a hypothesis that would resolve the puzzle and that also generates a testable prediction; gather data to test your prediction; and finally, evaluate your hypothesis relative to competing hypotheses.

The scientific method is largely responsible for the astonishing increase in our understanding of the natural world over the past few centuries. Yet it has been slow to enter the worlds of politics, business, policy, and marketing, where our prodigious intuition for human behavior can always generate explanations for why people do what they do or how to make them do something different. Because these explanations are so plausible, our natural tendency is to want to act on them without further ado. But if we have learned one thing from science, it is that the most plausible explanation is not necessarily correct. Adopting a scientific approach to decision making requires us to test our hypotheses with data.

While data is essential for scientific decision making, theory, intuition, and imagination remain important as well—to generate hypotheses in the first place, to devise creative tests of the hypotheses that we have, and to interpret the data that we collect. Data and theory, in other words, are the yin and yang of the scientific method—theory frames the right questions, while data answers the questions that have been asked. Emphasizing either at the expense of the other can lead to serious mistakes…

Even here, though, the scientific method is instructive, not for eliciting answers but rather for highlighting the limits of what can be known. We can’t help asking why Apple became so successful, or what caused the last financial crisis, or why “Gangnam Style” was the most viral video of all time. Nor can we stop ourselves from coming up with plausible answers. But in cases where we cannot test our hypothesis many times, the scientific method teaches us not to infer too much from any one outcome. Sometimes the only true answer is that we just do not know.

To summarize: the scientific method provides ways to ask questions and receive data regarding answering these questions. It is not perfect – it doesn’t always produce the answer or the answers people are looking for, it may only be as good as the questions asked, it requires a rigorous methodology – but it can help push forward the development of knowledge.

While there are businesses and policymakers using such approaches, it strikes me that such an argument for the scientific method is especially needed in the midst of big data and gobs of information. In today’s world, getting information is not a problem. Individuals and companies can quickly find or measure lots of data. However, it still requires work, interpretation, and proper methodology to interpret that data.

Some Chicago aldermen, businesses argue they want parking meters to move cars and customers along

As Chicago debates a parking meter policy, some aldermen and businesses want metered parking on Sunday so they can keep customers moving through the parking spaces:

Some aldermen are saying “no thanks” to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s offer of free Sunday parking when it comes to their commercial districts for fear it would hurt businesses that rely on street parking for their customers…

“As soon as this deal happened, I got a letter from my chamber of commerce, saying … this is going to hurt local businesses,” Ald. Michele Smith, whose 43rd Ward includes most of Lincoln Park, said during a Finance Committee hearing on Tuesday to weigh the mayor’s proposal. Businesses need parkers to move on so others can take their place, several aldermen said…

“In some commercial areas, with some businesses, the businesses actually want the turnover that payment on Sunday gives, because having spots filled by somebody that’s just leaving it there all day hurts business, and that’s the concern that we’re trying to address on a case-by-case basis,” Patton said.

Intriguingly, this puts the aldermen in a tough position between residents/customers and businesses:

But aldermen would have to request it, something Ald. Ameya Pawar, 47th, said could leave council members in a tough spot. “What it ends up setting up is a situation where, ‘Well, whose side are you on — the businesses or the constituents?’ It’s problematic,” Pawar told Patton.

This highlights an advantage of parking meters: they can keep the parked traffic moving so that cars can’t clog up spaces. Without them, city residents and visitors are likely to sit in the spots for a long time. This also is a reminder of the mix of uses often found in urban neighborhoods: both residents and businesses are vying for parking for much of the day. In contrast, parking is more plentiful in suburban shopping areas and many suburban downtown businesses gave up parking meters decades ago to keep customers happy. But, these suburban downtowns rarely have the density and demand for street parking that cities face.

So, if residents in these neighborhoods complained loud enough about wanting free parking on Sundays, would they be able to force an alderman to side with them?

Poor Chicago neighborhoods have fewer businesses compared to the average American poor neighborhood

Chicago’s poor neighborhoods aren’t just lacking businesses. These Chicago neighborhoods have significantly lower numbers of businesses compared to poor neighborhoods in other American cities.

Translated: that means Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods are tremendously business-poor, even compared to other cities’ poorest neighborhoods. As the author, Marco Luis Small, puts it: “In some cases, the difference is stark. Chicago has 82% fewer small restaurants, 95% fewer small banks, and 72% fewer small convenience stores than a black poor ghetto in the average city…. The average black poor neighborhood in the U.S. does not look at all like the South Side of Chicago.”

The effects go beyond mere economic loss. In Heat Wave, Eric Klinenberg notes the differences between North and South Lawndale and their effects on the death rate during the 1995 heat wave:

“In North Lawndale, the dangerous ecology of abandoned buildings, open spaces, commercial depletion, violent crime, degraded infrastructure, low population density, and family dispersion undermines the viability of public life and the strength of local support systems,” he writes. “In Little Village, though, the busy streets, heavy commercial activity, residential concentration, and relatively low crime promote social contact, collective life, and public engagement in general and provide particular benefits for the elderly, who are more likely to leave home when they are drawn out by nearby amenities.”…

What struck Small when he moved to Chicago was this absence of activity—compared to, say, Harlem, which is poor but tremendously vibrant: “What I first noticed, and what took me months to get used to, was the utter lack of density, the surprising preponderance of empty spaces, vacant lots, and desolate streets, even as late as 2006. Repeatedly, I asked myself, where is everyone?”

This is part of Chicago’s exceptionalism: gleaming downtown and struggling poor neighborhoods amidst residential segregation (as discussed by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton in American Apartheid and others). One strange aspect of all of this is the lack of conversation within the Chicago area itself about these disparities. Plenty of people are willing to discuss murders and crime rates. But, while sociologists like Mario Luis Small, Sudhir Venkatesh, Robert Sampson, Eric Klinenberg, and others have provided clear data about the lack of economic opportunities (as well as other kinds of opportunities) in poor Chicago neighborhoods, this is rarely discussed in public.

Retail redlining

Residential redlining is well-known in the United States as a means for keeping whites and blacks living in separate neighborhoods. But what about retail redlining?

David Mekarski, the village administrator for the south Chicago suburb of Olympia Fields, told a startling story this week at the American Planning Association’s annual conference about a debate he recently had with a restaurant official. Why, he wanted to know, wouldn’t quality restaurants come to his mixed-race community, where the average annual household income is $77,000, above the county average?

The reply: “Black folks don’t tip, and so managers can’t maintain a quality staff. And if they can’t maintain a quality staff, they can’t maintain a quality restaurant.”

A gasp then rippled through the room in front of Mekarski. “This is one of the most pervasive and insidious forms of racism left in America today,” he says.

There’s a term for the phenomenon he’s describing: retail redlining. The practice is a more recent and less studied variation on redlining as it’s been historically recognized in the housing sector. In the context of retail, grocery stores, and restaurants, redlining refers to the “spatially discriminatory practice” of not serving certain communities because of their ethnic or racial composition, rather than their economic prospects.

This sounds like it is worth studying. This reminds me of research about food deserts and payday loan stores and pawn shops that show their relations tend to be related to social class and race. On one hand, the article suggests it is difficult in research to sort out the effects of economics and race as businesses consider a lot of factors for their locations. On the other hand, couldn’t research look at the locations of specific businesses, like Walmart or Walgreens, and see if they tend to be located in certain places over others when the economic characteristics are similar?