Bridging the Opportunity Divide

How San Francisco Is Tapping Big Data to Measure Neighborhood Sustainability

July 15, 2014
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How San Francisco Is Tapping Big Data to Measure Neighborhood Sustainability
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This revolutionary project will use open data to monitor communities and forecast urban development.

What comes to mind when you think of San Francisco? If you’re like most, it’s the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatrez prison, and liberal social views.

But you should also think about San Francisco’s civic technology. The City by the Bay is often considered a trendsetter in this field — and now, it’s enlisting help from the Midwest to help engineer its latest investment in a digital government tool.

Partnering with the University of Chicago, San Francisco’s Citywide Planning Division is creating a neighborhood dashboard to measure each community’s sustainability by measuring statistics such as energy, water usage, materials management, health, local habitat, community investment and mobility, according to Government Technology.

The “Sustainable Systems Framework” will regularly update metrics on individual neighborhoods through department datasets, which will then give insight on future urban development and resource management, according to city planner Lisa Chen.

While a variety of components inspired the framework’s design, Chicago’s WindyGrid provided a template for San Fran’s system. WindyGrid is an open-sourced data hub that stores seven million rows of data in real-time across the city’s departments and is considered one of the largest municipal data ventures of its kind.

Matthew Gee, the U of Chicago’s project coordinator and a member of the team that developed WindyGrid, explains that San Francisco’s deployment of the technology could provide data-driven accountability for individual neighborhoods for the first time in its history.

“That kind of insight into how local programs, initiatives and investments have changed and improved the area around us hasn’t been possible in the past — or at least openly available — and that’s really exciting,” Gee said.

But building the technology is the easy part. Coordinating datasets and mapping out communities pose major challenges to the groundbreaking project. The university will help city officials comb through department data to extract the most meaningful stats to use in sustainable metrics, which entails even minute pieces like block parties or historic preservation.

While breaking down neighborhoods may seem like an easy task, mapping will take more into account than zip codes or geographical borders. Instead, the project team will separate neighborhoods by eco-districts as well as communities that share residential, commercial and industrial traits. These defined terms were first employed by Portland in 2010, and Chen contends the methodology is well-researched.

“Getting agencies to coordinate efforts even in a single neighborhood can be a real challenge,” Chen said, “and I think having performance metrics is one way to really engage agencies as well as the broader community.”

San Francisco will join more than 20 cities to begin exploring the idea of governing tactics by similar areas rather than one centralized plan for the whole city, The beta version is expected to roll out by the end of the first quarter in 2015, and residents will be able to check out a public version shortly after.

“We want this to be a demonstration project that shows cities the power of data and citizen-facing technologies that change the way cities grow,” Gee said.

MORE: How San Francisco Got Its Residents to Care About Sewers

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