Zoning trade-off: privacy vs. adverse effects

The conclusion of Sonia Hirt’s book Zoned in the USA sums up the advantages and disadvantages of a zoning system that privileges the single-family home:

Arguably, zoning – the kind of zoning that makes explicitly private space the formative compositional element of America’s settlements – does deliver the gift of privacy to American families. But put all the other arguments mentioned in the previous paragraphs together, and one begins to wonder whether the original promises of zoning were either highly suspect from the beginning or have since been turned on their heads. Paradoxically (from the viewpoint of zoning’s founders), we may not have more pollution and worse public health with our current zoning that we would have if we had modified our land-use laws more substantially over the last hundred years.

As Hirt discusses, residents can have their own private homes – the largest new single-family homes in the world – but that comes at a cost of traffic and commuting, worse pollution and using more land, and worse health as well as some unrealized dreams of zoning including reduced crime. Some would argue that the privacy is overrated as well: compared to many other countries, Americans have given up on public life.

While it is easier to imagine mixed uses in dense urban neighborhoods – imagine Jane Jacobs’ vision of a bustling mixed use New York neighborhood – it is harder to imagine mixed use or zoning throughout the vast expanses of American suburbs. Even New Urbanists have tended to design neighborhoods or shopping centers dropped into suburban settings rather than the whole fabric of suburban communities. From the beginning of American suburbs, there was the idea that the urban dweller was escaping to a cottage in nature. The home out there offered refuge from people, dirt, and bustle. Today, this legacy lives on when suburban residents oppose certain land uses near their homes for fear of a lower quality of life and subsequently reduced property values.

Ultimately, would the American suburbs even exist without the fundamental desire for privacy?

“Nothing that is off-limits to political data mining”

Your consumer data is of value to political campaigns and parties eager to reach individual voters:

But as presidential campaigns push into a new frontier of voter targeting, scouring social media accounts, online browsing habits and retail purchasing records of millions of Americans, they have brought a privacy imposition unprecedented in politics. By some estimates, political candidates are collecting more personal information on Americans than even the most aggressive retailers. Questions are emerging about how much risk the new order of digital campaigning is creating for unwitting voters as the vast troves of data accumulated by political operations becomes increasingly attractive to hackers…

“There is a tremendous amount of data out there and the question is what types of controls are in place and how secure is it,” said Craig Spiezle, executive director of the nonprofit Online Trust Alliance. The group’s recent audit of campaign websites for privacy, security and consumer protection gave three-quarters of the candidates failing grades…One firm, Aristotle, boasts how it helped a senior senator win reelection in 2014 using “over 500 demographic and consumer points, which created a unique voter profile of each constituent.” Company officials declined an interview request.

When investigators in Congress and the FTC looked into the universe of what data brokers make available to their clients – be they political, corporate or nonprofit – some of the findings were unsettling. One company was selling lists of rape victims; another was offering up the home addresses of police officers.

I think several things are relevant to note. First, it sounds like the majority of this data is not collected by political actors but rather is aggregated by them to help predict voter behavior. In other words, this data collection is happening whether political actors use the information or not. This is a bigger issue than just politics. Second, should American residents be more concerned that this information is available in the political realm or is available to corporations? The story suggests political campaigns aren’t well prepared to protect all this data but how do corporations stack up? Again, this is a larger issue of who is gathering all of this data to start, from where, and how is it being protected.

Another area worth thinking more about is how effective all this data actually is in elections. This story doesn’t say and numerous other stories on this subject I’ve read tend not to say: just how big are the differences in voting behavior among these microgroups or people identified by particular consumer behaviors? Is this the only way to win campaigns today (see media reports on political campaigns successfully using this data here and here)? Is this knowledge worth 1% in the final outcome, 5%, 10%? Perhaps this is hard to get at because this is a relatively new phenomena and because data companies as well as campaigns want to guard their proprietary methods. Yet, it is hard to know how big of a deal this is to either consumers or political actors. Is this data mining manipulating elections?

New data collection tool: the ever-on smartphone microphone

One company is using the microphone in smartphones to figure out what people are watching on TV:

TV news was abuzz Thursday morning after Variety reported on a presentation by Alan Wurtzel, a president at NBCUniversal, who said that streaming shows weren’t cutting into broadcast television viewership to the degree that much of the press seems to believe. Mr. Wurtzel used numbers that estimated viewership using data gathered by mobile devices that listened to what people were watching and extrapolating viewership across the country…

The company behind the technology is called Symphony Advanced Media. The Observer spoke to its CEO Charles Buchwalter, about how it works, via phone. “Our entire focus is to add insights and perspectives on an entire new paradigm around how consumers are consuming media across  platforms,” he told the Observer…

Symphony asks those who opt in to load Symphony-branded apps onto their personal devices, apps that use microphones to listen to what’s going on in the background. With technology from Gracenote, the app can hear the show playing and identify it using its unique sound signature (the same way Shazam identifies a song playing over someone else’s speakers). Doing it that way allows the company to gather data on viewing of sites like Netflix and Hulu, whether the companies like it or not. (Netflix likes data)

It uses specific marketing to recruit “media insiders” into its system, who then download its app (there’s no way for consumers to get it without going through this process). In exchange, it pays consumers $5 in gift cards (and up) per month, depending on the number of devices he or she authorizes.

The undertone of this reporting is that there are privacy concerns lurking around the corner. Like the video camera now built into most laptops, tablets, and smartphones that might be turned on by nefarious people, most of these devices also have microphones that could be utilized by others.

Yet, as noted here, there is potential to gather data through opt-in programs. Imagine a mix between survey and ethnographic data where an opt-in program can get an audio sense of where the user is. Or record conversations to examine both content and interaction patterns. Or to look at the noise levels people are surrounded by. Or to simply capture voice responses to survey questions that might allow respondents to provide more details (because they are able to interact with the question more as well as because their voice patterns might also provide insights).

Install an artificial plant to hide nearby McMansion

Have an unsightly McMansion next door? Install artificial plantings:

A San Marcos, California based company, Geranium Street Floral, has installed their artificial plants at many hip remodeled homes throughout Southern California. The company recently installed an artificial hedge at a remodeled property in North Hollywood that no doubt greatly improved the view in the backyard of the custom remodeled home. Geranium Street specializes in creating backyard privacy with their artificial plants.

Geranium Street president, Bob Smith explains that with the advent of “McMansions” throughout Southern California, the need for privacy is at an all time high. “Before, you had houses in a neighborhood that were all basically the same height, so privacy wasn’t much of an issue, but now they are tearing the old houses down and building houses that tower over those of their neighbors – suddenly everyone feels like they are living in a fish bowl. We have ways to solve that problem quickly with our artificial plants,” said Smith…

Bob Smith explained that many real estate developers have found the quick solution to their privacy and decorative needs by installing artificial plants. “Whereas it may take months to grow real vines and plant real trees, we can come in and install our artificial plants in a day or two. The new artificial trees and plants look more realistic than they ever did before, and they are very durable,” said Smith.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. Given the water issues in California, I’m surprised this press release doesn’t include the rationale of saving money on plantings. Have a hedge and no water is required.
  2. It would be interesting to think about how these installations play with the idea of “nature.” Some would say the real plantings in the suburban sprawl like that found in southern California are already poor imitations of nature. But, what if those same plantings aren’t even real? Is this a more honest admission of the lack of nature? These options are billed as durable but they likely provide a different aesthetic and physical experience.
  3. Theoretically, such hedges could be built to any size of shape. McMansions can come in all sorts of sizes and shapes and a company could get pretty creative in how an artificial hedge hides the ugly house next door.
  4. What do artificial plants do to property values? They may be durable but I imagine they could be viewed as tacky or lower class.

To pay or not to pay for Facebook

Would you rather pay Facebook with money or data?

Not long ago, Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist who studies social media, wrote that she wanted to pay for Facebook. More precisely, she wants the company to offer a cash option (about twenty cents a month, she calculates) for people who value their privacy, but also want a rough idea of what their friends’ children look like. In return for Facebook agreeing not to record what she does—and to not show her targeted ads—she would give them roughly the amount of money that they make selling the ads that she sees right now. Not surprisingly, her request seems to have been ignored. But the question remains: just why doesn’t Facebook want Tufekci’s money? One reason, I think, is that it would expose the arbitrage scheme at the core of Facebook’s business model and the ridiculous degree to which people undervalue their personal data…

The trick is that most people think they are getting a good deal out of Facebook; we think of Facebook to be “free,” and, as marketing professors explain, “consumers overreact to free.” Most people don’t feel like they are actually paying when the payment is personal data and when there is no specific sensation of having handed anything over. If you give each of your friends a hundred dollars, you might be out of money and will have a harder time buying dinner. But you can hand over your personal details or photos to one hundred merchants without feeling any poorer.

So what does it really mean, then, to pay with data? Something subtler is going on than with the more traditional means of payment. Jaron Lanier, the author of “Who Owns the Future,” sees our personal data not unlike labor—you don’t lose by giving it away, but if you don’t get anything back you’re not receiving what you deserve. Information, he points out, is inherently valuable. When billions of people hand data over to just a few companies, the effect is a giant wealth transfer from the many to the few…

Ultimately, Tufekci wants us to think harder about what it means when we pay with data or attention instead of money, which is what makes her proposition so interesting. While every business has slightly mixed motives, those companies that we pay live and die by how they serve the customer. In contrast, the businesses we are paying with attention or data are conflicted. We are their customers, but we are also their products, ultimately resold to others. We are unlikely to stop loving free stuff. But we always pay in the end—and it is worth asking how.

Perhaps we are headed toward a world where companies like Facebook would have to show customers (1) how much data they actually have about the person and (2) what that data is worth. But, I imagine the corporations would like to avoid this because it is better if the user is unaware and shares all sorts of things. And what would it take for customers to demand such transparency or do we simply like the allure of Facebook and credit cards and others products too much to pull back the curtain?

Is it going too far to suggest that personal data is the most important asset individuals will have in the future?

Ah, another story of an overzealous Census surveyor

Worried the Census Bureau is going to force compliance in answering its surveys? Here is another story of a zealous employee:

An East Dallas woman is outraged after she claims one U.S. Census worker showed up at her door for a housing survey and would not take “no” for an answer…

“She’s ringing the bell, knocking on the door. And I’m like, ‘I don’t want to participate.’” Said Platz. The East Dallas resident said it started with a series of three letters from the U.S. Census Bureau. A few days later after receiving the third later, a census worker showed up. Her husband verbally declined.

But a few days later, a different worker showed up at their home and would not leave according to Platz…

The census worker sat on the bumper of her van for the next 30 minutes. Sonia said the worker would only get up from the back of her van every few minutes to see if she had changed her mind about taking the housing survey…

It was a real federal census worker according to the regional office that covers Dallas. A supervisor confirmed more than 100 other workers are out in the area conducting the same work. The regional office said employees are encouraged to be “pleasantly persistent” and never take “no” for an answer at first.

I would guess that at least 95%+ of Census workers don’t cause such problems. But, an occasional case of Census workers who really want survey responses may be enough to keep people worried. And it would be interesting to hear how the Census Bureau deals with such employees.

To be snarky about it, perhaps people shouldn’t worry too much about the zealous Census worker as the NSA could just gather the relevant information without anyone knowing…

Testing a pay-per-mile tax in Oregon

Looking for more revenue, Oregon is starting a test program of paying for miles driven rather than gasoline used:

The program is meant to help the state raise more revenue to pay for road and bridge projects at a time when money generated from gasoline taxes are declining across the country, in part, because of greater fuel efficiency and the increasing popularity of fuel-efficient, hybrid and electric cars.

Starting July 1, up to 5,000 volunteers in Oregon can sign up to drive with devices that collect data on how much they have driven and where. The volunteers will agree to pay 1.5 cents for each mile traveled on public roads within Oregon, instead of the tax now added when filling up at the pump…

Private vendors will provide drivers with small digital devices to track miles; other services will also be offered. Volunteers can opt out of the program at any time, and they’ll get a refund for miles driven on private property and out of state…

Drivers will be able to install an odometer device without GPS tracking.

For those who use the GPS, the state and private vendors will destroy records of location and daily metered use after 30 days. The program also limits how the data can be aggregated and shared. Law enforcement, for example, won’t be able to access the information unless a judge says it’s needed.

 

I suspect a number of governments will be interested in how this test works out. One big hurdle to overcome would seem to be privacy, though government tracking of vehicles may not be far off anyhow (through cell phones, insurance company monitoring devices, black boxes, toll booths/devices, license plate readers, etc.). The argument about deincentivizing electric or hybrid cars doesn’t really hold up because these vehicles still use the roads and add to the maintenance burden. Yet, ultimately this will be about revenue: is this a better model for bringing in the money needed for roads?