Using smartphones to collect important economic data

Virginia Postrel describes a new app used in a number of countries to gather economic data on the ground:

Founded in 2012, the San Francisco-based startup Premise began by looking for a way to supplement official price indices with a quick-turnaround measure of inflation and relative currency values. It needed “a scalable, cost-effective way to collect a lot of price data,” chief executive David Soloff said in an interview. The answer was an Android app and more than 30,000 smart-phone-wielding contractors in 32 countries.

The contractors, who are paid by the usable photo and average about $100 a month, take pictures aimed at answering specific economic questions: How do the prices in government-run stores compare to those in private shops? Which brands of cigarette packages in which locations carry the required tax stamp? How many houses are hooked into power lines? What’s happening to food prices? Whatever the question, the data needed to answer it must be something a camera can capture…

The result is a collection of price indices updated much more frequently and with less time lag — although also fewer indicative items — than monthly government statistics. For Bloomberg terminal subscribers, Premise tracks food and beverage prices in the U.S., China, India, Brazil and Argentina, using indices mirroring government statistics. It gets new information daily; Bloomberg publishes new data twice a week. Premise tracks a similar index in Nigeria for Standard Chartered bank, which has made the aggregate data public. (Premise clients can drill down to see differences across products, types of retailers, or regions.) While more volatile than official statistics, the figures generally anticipate them, serving as an early-warning system for economic trends…

Premise has government clients, and it carefully positions its work as a complement to official statistics, as well as to the academic Billion Prices Project, which scrapes massive amounts of price data from online sources but can’t say what cooking oil sells for in a corner shop. Make no mistake, however: Its methods also provide valuable competition to the official data. The point, after all, is to find out what’s actually happening, not what government reports will say in a few weeks.

This is an innovative way to get data more quickly. It would be interesting to see how reliable this data is. Now it remains to be seen how markets, governments, and others will use more up-to-date information.

More broadly, smartphones could be used to collect all sorts of data. See previous posts on using the microphone and the use of additional apps such as Twitter and Waze.

“Architects Defend the World’s Most Hated Buildings”

It is fun to see the efforts of seven well-known architects as they highlight the better points of some buildings disliked by many. Some summary statements:

Maybe Tour Montparnasse is not a work of genius, but it signified a notion of what the city of the future will have to be. [Tour Montparnasse]

At a distance, the scale of the skyline exudes a sense of identity and strength for Albany, while at the pedestrian level the Plaza plays an important role in the community. I know that others find it too brutal or forbidding, but I think it’s beautiful in its monumentality and starkness. Monumentality always suggests supreme power, and that’s scary. I somehow think that if you could populate the Plaza with more gardens, and make it feel more part of everyday life — which they’ve tried to do with farmers’ markets and using the basin for ice skating — then it wouldn’t feel so hostile. [Empire State Plaza, Albany]

Monuments, if you trace their ancestry, can reveal disturbing things about the past. Nonetheless, they have enduring qualities which, viewed on their own merits, are perhaps an example to us. [Templehof Airport, Berlin]

It was the first building with an observation deck — that way of engaging with the city was actually pioneered by the tower. It had a restaurant that wasn’t particularly expensive. High rises today are about exploiting the skyline for private gain. But Londoners are capable of being nostalgic too: We have a power station that is now a modern art gallery. I wonder if the satellites and antennae shouldn’t be reinstated to communicate its purpose as an enduring symbol of the moment in the 1960s when technology propelled Britain onto the international stage. It’s a reminder. [BT Tower, London]

Who exactly gets to decide whether a building is loved or hated? Who are the real gatekeepers? This is actually an issue for many cultural objects in the modern world. There are always opinions from the experts, whether from architects themselves who can better understand the process to architecture critics who often write for influential media and can have their opinions heard by millions to the public who can now share their opinion via social media and other public forums. But, architecture is slightly different than say music or other media because it has a real permanence. If a major public building or skyscraper is viewed as ugly, it is not likely to be torn down or remade quickly. (The Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis is a rare example where it was occupied for less than twenty years and its destruction was viewed by “the death of modernism.”) The seven buildings in this particular article are here to stay and, oddly enough, may just become targets for historic preservation in the future because they are important and old.

Can Wikipedia rally the common good to improve?

MIT Technology Review gives an overview of the troubles at Wikipedia and how the limited group behind the website wants to improve it:

Yet Wikipedia and its stated ambition to “compile the sum of all human knowledge” are in trouble. The volunteer workforce that built the project’s flagship, the English-language Wikipedia—and must defend it against vandalism, hoaxes, and manipulation—has shrunk by more than a third since 2007 and is still shrinking. Those participants left seem incapable of fixing the flaws that keep Wikipedia from becoming a high-quality encyclopedia by any standard, including the project’s own. Among the significant problems that aren’t getting resolved is the site’s skewed coverage: its entries on Pokemon and female porn stars are comprehensive, but its pages on female novelists or places in sub-Saharan Africa are sketchy. Authoritative entries remain elusive. Of the 1,000 articles that the project’s own volunteers have tagged as forming the core of a good encyclopedia, most don’t earn even Wikipedia’s own middle-­ranking quality scores.

The main source of those problems is not mysterious. The loose collective running the site today, estimated to be 90 percent male, operates a crushing bureaucracy with an often abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers who might increase participation in Wikipedia and broaden its coverage.

In response, the Wikimedia Foundation, the 187-person nonprofit that pays for the legal and technical infrastructure supporting Wikipedia, is staging a kind of rescue mission. The foundation can’t order the volunteer community to change the way it operates. But by tweaking Wikipedia’s website and software, it hopes to steer the encyclopedia onto a more sustainable path…

Whether that can happen depends on whether enough people still believe in the notion of online collaboration for the greater good—the ideal that propelled Wikipedia in the beginning. But the attempt is crucial; Wikipedia matters to many more people than its editors and students who didn’t make time to read their assigned books. More of us than ever use the information found there, both directly and via other services. Meanwhile, Wikipedia has either killed off the alternatives or pushed them down the Google search results. In 2009 Microsoft closed Encarta, which was based on content from several storied encyclopedias. Encyclopaedia Britannica, which charges $70 a year for online access to its 120,000 articles, offers just a handful of free entries plastered with banner and pop-up ads.

So if Wikipedia was created by a collective, can it be saved by a collective? The story goes on to describe a common process for human groups: as they grow and over time, they tend to take on bureaucratic tendencies which then make it more difficult to change course.

The larger question may be whether modern humans can regularly pursue the common good on the Internet. If it can’t be done on Wikipedia, what other hope is there? The average comments section at a major news website? Reddit? YouTube? Are we at the point when we can say that big corporations have “won” the Internet?

The “trick or treat index” for metropolitan areas and Chicago neighborhoods

In a ranking sure to bring in some Internet traffic, Zillow has put together a “trick or treat index”. The top ten cities: San Francisco, Boston, Honolulu, San Jose, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington D.C., Portland, and Philadelphia. You can also see the top neighborhoods for these cities. Here is what goes into the index:

Zillow takes numbers seriously, even when it comes to trick or treating. Taking the most holistic approach, the Trick-or-Treat Index is calculated using four equally weighted data variables: Zillow Home Value Index, population density, Walk Score and local crime data from Relocation Essentials. Based on these variables, the Index represents cities that will provide the most candy, with the fewest walking and safety risks.

A brief and clear explanation. The index includes four equally weighted factors: the price of homes (giving some indication of the wealth in the neighborhood), density (how many people/households are available to go to for candy), walkability (can easily walk to more candy locations), and crime rates (safety while trick-or-treating). All of this presumably adds up to identifying the best places to get candy: wealthy people are likely to give better candy, there are more households within a short walk, and it is safe. But, why don’t we get the actual ratings in these four categories for the top cities?

It is probably not worth anyone doing a serious research project on this but it would be interesting to crowdsource some data from Halloween to see how this index matches up with experiences on the ground. In other words, does this index have validity? This seems like a perfect Internet project – think GasBuddy for Halloween candy.

What happens when you let Boston residents crowdsource neighborhood boundaries

Here is a fascinating online experiment: let residents of a city, in this case, Boston, illustrate how they would draw neighborhood boundaries. Here are the conclusions of the effort thus far:

Although we talk a lot about boundaries, this post included, the maps here should also remind us that neighborhoods are not defined by their edges—essentially, what is outside the neighborhood—but rather by their contents. And it’s not just a collection of roads and things you see on a map; it’s about some shared history, activities, architecture, and culture. So while the neighborhood summaries above rely on edges to describe the maps, let’s also think about the areas represented by the shapes and what’s inside them. What are the characteristics of these areas? Why are they the shapes that they are? Why is consensus easy or difficult in different areas? What is the significance of the differences in opinion between residents of a neighborhood and people outside the neighborhood?

We’ll revisit those questions in further detail in future posts, and also generate maps of other facets of the data. Next up: areas of overlap between neighborhoods. Here we’ve looked neighborhood-by-neighborhood at how much people agree, so now let’s map those zones that exhibit disagreement. Meanwhile, thanks so much for all the submissions for this project; and if you haven’t drawn some neighborhoods, what’s your problem? Get on it!

This gets at a recurring issue for urban sociologists: how to best define communities or neighborhoods. The best option with data is to use Census boundaries such as tracts, block groups, blocks, and perhaps zip codes. This data is collected regularly, in-depth, and can be easily downloaded. However, these boundaries are crude approximations of culturally defined neighborhoods. People on the ground have little knowledge about what Census tract they live in (though this is easy to figure out online).

So if Census definitions are not the best for the on-the-ground experience, what is left? This crowdsourcing project is a modern way of doing what some researchers have done: ask the residents themselves and also observe what happens. What streets are not crossed? Which features or landmarks define a neighborhood? Who “belongs” where? What are typical activities in different places? Of course, this is a much messier process than working with clearly defined and reliable Census data but it illustrates a key aspect about neighborhoods: they are continually changing and being redefined by their own residents and others.