Weighing Big Data and Public Opinion

The rookie pitcher stepped onto the mound and began throwing his warmup tosses to his catcher. The broadcasters gave the “scouting report” on the young hurler who was just called up from the minors a few weeks before.

As a huge baseball fan, I’m very much used to seeing new players introduce themselves to the Major Leagues. But the thing that raised my eyebrows was not the new pitcher, it was the next camera shot of the opposing team’s bench. Players with iPads were diligently looking at data, metrics and video of the pitcher, digesting information that might help them maximize their at bats against the rookie. In a game that, for so long, favored gut decisions, feel and touch, the image of these players breaking the contest down to raw numbers was truly intriguing. It was a clear sign of how baseball has changed.

At first, the introduction of analytics was a tough pill to swallow for those who thought they knew how baseball games were won and lost (see the movie Moneyball). Traditionalists scoffed at the notion that the intricacies of the game and its players could be broken down into mathematical models. But over time, more and more people bought into the undeniable results, and the competition has changed with the emergence of big data forever.

We are beginning to reach this point with our cities and communities as well. Tremendous amounts of data is being gathered in our urban areas, giving us a evolving and far more accurate picture of how our cities and their people actually move and work on a day-to-day basis. With time, we will create more and more meaningful models based on robust and repeated data analysis that minimize variables and error.

As the importance of data grows with regard to city design, so will the need for experts to be able to digest and apply this knowledge. But as we begin to get a clearer picture of what actually works with regard to building safer, more efficient, more economically viable, more inclusive and more environmentally conscious urban centers, we will no doubt face the same skepticism that baseball did. If data tells us what is best for our communities, what message does that send to people who have approached the built environment based on feel and perception alone?  If the data tells us to approach our “city build” in a different way, are residents, business owners, and urban “experts” going to give way to meaningful information that contradicts their anecdotal or historical experience?

And furthermore, unlike baseball, our cities and communities strive to be democratic in nature, allowing our neighbors to have an important voice in the outcome of any process. After all, this is where they live right? But what if the way these folks live is unsustainable, inefficient, and inequitable? What if, as is the case for so much of suburban America, what people want and what data almost definitively shows is best for everyone are two vastly different things?

By no means am I advocating for universally forcing cities and people in a strictly data-driven direction, but I would ask us all to ponder this… as the explosion of information and the careful analyzation of meaningful data about what we really do, and how we really do it continues to increases, should our own opinion on what we want or what we think is best matter as much as it does now? I understand this is a dangerous question to ask, and again, I would never call for the stripping of our American right to have a strong voice in the direction of our communities. Instead, I’m asking you, the person who still believes that widening roads leads to less traffic (which we now know the opposite actually happens) to think differently. I’m asking you, the individual who believes cities are damaging to our environment (when in truth the density of cities makes them lest wasteful, more efficient, more economically viable, with less encroachment on wildlife than their suburban counterparts) to open your eyes to the vast plethora of data that is telling us about the benefits of city life.

Let’s use our democratic ability to tell our leaders what we want, but let’s do so with the understanding that there is a growing body of information about how we live that contradicts long-held beliefs regarding healthy, happy and successful communities. Just like big data in baseball showed us that our long-held beliefs about what really led to wins and losses was incorrect and changed the way we fundamentally play the game today, we must begin to see what data is telling us about our cities and our built environment, and adapt our visions and our demands accordingly!