a new adventure

For more than a decade I’ve been in the non-profit / public sector, working on a variety of issues – anti-racism, fair housing, education, technology, and data analysis. I’ve had the opportunity to work with amazing people on some outstanding projects that made a real difference. It has been incredibly rewarding and gratifying work, and I will miss it dearly.

Over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly interested in how technology and data can be used to help people make better decisions. For years, savvy companies have crunched their numbers through expensive and complicated business analytics packages to improve their market position – and, until recently, they were among the only folks who could afford to exploit data in this way. For the average Jane or Joe, using massive amounts of data to make every day decisions was next to impossible. There were barriers of access, technology, connectivity, and ease-of-use.

But things are changing quickly. Very quickly. Just about anyone with basic computer literacy is now able to tap into massive databases to make all sorts of choices, from choosing which car to buy to deciding on the next book to read. As smartphones grow more and more ubiquitous, there is an enormous opportunity to bring the insight and intelligence of data to bear on an incredibly wide array of decisions.

For almost three years (’07-’10) my work focused on MoveSmart.org, a tool to provide housing seekers a way to find neighborhoods of opportunity and diversity. There is a plethora of research addressing how most Americans make poor housing decisions, clouded by ignorance and prejudice. Our goal was simple: expose the data-based realities of neighborhoods, connect people to housing opportunities, and empower anyone to make a smarter move. Reflecting on the experience, we met with moderate success; a few foundations and organizations gave MoveSmart.org small grants, bloggers said nice things about the project, NetSquared selected us a finalist, and more than 7,000 people used the site to explore neighborhoods.

For better or worse, I made the decision early-on that MoveSmart.org would be a non-profit organization. We went through the entire process of incorporating, establishing 501(c)3 status with the IRS, developing a board of directors, applying for foundation and government grants, conducting fundraising campaigns, etc. It was a mountain of work, but the entire team behind the project thought it was a pre-requisite for funding. We’d had a number of preliminary meetings with foundations and HUD officials, folks were excited about the project, and there was a mountain of research to back us up.

After three years of banging our heads against the wall, MoveSmart.org went largely dormant. I was exhausted and had a kid on the way. The Metro Chicago Information Center (MCIC) had offered me a fulltime job that was almost too good to be true. When I learned that we didn’t receive a large HUD grant because I neglected to explain why I set our travel per diem at $40/day instead of the regular $60/day, it felt like a sign that it was time to move on.

Just a few weeks before we got the news from HUD, I saw a demo of the Food Genome at the amazing NPDev Summit in Oakland. I spent the plane ride home sketching and brainstorming and, a few days later, emailed Eric to start noodling on ideas together.

While each American generation is more mobile than the prior one, most of us will only move a handful of times in our lives. But food is an entirely different story; most Americans eat out more than a few time every week (or for most of their meals, depending on location). Eric and I started wondering what would happen if we could apply the same approach to food that MoveSmart.org took with neighborhoods…

After a few months of tossing ideas back and forth, we came up with the core concept in April 2010. What if we could make individual dish suggestions not based on the social graph or unreliable website reviews, but on their actual ingredients and the user’s tastebuds? Food Genius was born.

Until we started working on our Excelerate Labs application, Food Genius was a hobby. In my wildest dreams, I thought that maybe one day, far in the future, we might get lucky and it could turn into a job. But the Excelerate process compels you to think deeply about your endeavor; a question on the initial application asks who is going to go fulltime and when. With a 10-month old daughter at home and a stable job that I loved, making the leap to becoming an entrepreneur should have been scary as hell. Throw in that I’ve been in the non-profit sector for more than a decade, and some might say I need to have my head examined.

There are still two weeks before we start the program, but I already know that jumping head-first into entrepreneurship through Excelerate Labs is one of the best decisions that I’ve made. Food Genius has been able to marshall more resources and funding in three months than I was able to assemble after nearly three years in the non-profit sector for an analogous project.

It’s time to do more, faster.

 

 

 

How Not to Search for Housing

Nate Silver and New York Magazine have posted a neighborhood ranking article and interactive widget that make some awful assumptions and miss a huge opportunity.

From the article:

Our goal was to take advantage of this wealth of data and apply a little bit of science to the question. If there was anything that could plausibly affect one’s quality of life in a particular neighborhood, we tried to incorporate it. We sorted the dozens and dozens of statistics we compiled into twelve broad categories: housing cost (as measured on a price-per-square-foot basis, for both renters and buyers), housing quality (historic districts, code violations, cockroaches), transit and proximity (commute times to lower Manhattan and midtown, the density of subway coverage), safety (as measured by violent- and nonviolent-crime rates), public schools (test scores and parent satisfaction), shopping and services (the number of neighborhood amenities, especially supermarkets), food and restaurants (judged by density and quality of options), bars and nightlife (ditto), creative capital (arts venues as well as the number of residents engaged in the arts), diversity (in terms of both race and income), green space (park and waterfront access, street trees), and health and environment (noise, air quality, overall cleanliness).

Silver goes on to rank 50 of New York’s neighborhoods and includes an interactive Livability Calculator. The article rankings and the calculator, with its preset options of  “Young, Single, and Cash-Strapped”, “Double Income, No Kids”, “Married with Children”, and “Empty-Nested and Retired” as well as a customizable version, suffer from a number of flaws:

  • assuming that these profiles represent the best way to understand neighborhoods;
  • making some absolutely awful assumptions about what these profiles value and devalue (see next bullet list);
  • providing only a partial methodology, no justification for the assumptions of the parts of their methodology described, and no listing of source data;
  • assuming that everyone works in midtown or Lower Manhattan;
  • and, by ignoring the role that race plays in housing choice, perpetuating segregation.

Specifically, the index makes the following faulty assumptions:

  • the “Empty-Nested and Retired” aren’t interested in diversity,
  • the “Married with Children” are more interested in shopping and ‘creative capital’ than diversity;
  • the “Double Income, No Kids” care more about shopping than safety/crime and green space;
  • and the “Young, Single, and Cash-Strapped” don’t care at all about schools and barely care about safety/crime or housing quality.

These profiles are grossly over-simplified and, such as in the case of “Young, Single, and Cash-Strapped”, make implicit assumptions about folks within that profile – there are many young, poor, single parents that would benefit from some help finding a better neighborhood. Despite our apparent fascination with lists of this type, they provide little help when it comes to actually making a choice about neighborhoods. Every neighborhood search metric should be unique, tailored to each of our families’ needs and the resources we have to share.

But the worst part is that articles like this don’t take advantage of available technologies.  Whereas for decades the mainstream press was limited by the printed word to one-size-fits-all-lists, the barriers that formerly existed to unleashing the long tail of opportunity-based housing search are now nearly gone. Rather than crunch all of the data into rankings and sliders, Silver and NYM should have empowered their readers to search and explore the source data in an intuitive way, identifying specific neighborhoods that meet their specific needs and providing details as to how they might take advantage of those opportunities. Moving a slider along a bar with no units of analysis and then providing no maps, amenity listings, nor other visualization is far from helpful (although I’ll admit it is kind of fun and interesting).

Especially in New York, where the NYC Data Mine provides journalists with a great resource of data, stories and widgets like this do little more than drive speculative real estate investments and spread stereotypes about neighborhoods.

Where we live has an enormous impact on our lives and far, far too many make that decision based on shoddy information.

Notes:

  • I am the co-founder of MoveSmart.org, an opportunity-based neighborhood search system.
  • I’ve only visited NYC a handful of times and have never fully explored its diverse and amazing neighborhoods, so this post intentionally leaves out any comment on the actual list created. That said, that their top choice is near the bottom of the pack in affordability and diversity says a great deal about their assumptions and intended audience.

community driven innovation

NetSquared, a project of TechSoup Global, has played an enormous role in my life over the last 20 months. MoveSmart.org was a featured project (finalist) in 2008′s N2Y3 Mashup Challenge, that same spring I was part of a large group that started Chicago NetTuesdays, and since the fall of 2008 I have worked as a contractor for NetSquared on various projects. It’s been amazing to see and participate in all facets of the project.

NetSquared has a unique approach to innovation prizes. We believe that they are just as much about community and collaboration as they are about competition. To that end, the project has produced the below white paper on what we’ve been referring to internally as our “special sauce”. Your comments and thoughts are encouraged.

Live Blogging “Reaffirming the Role of School Integration” Conference

MoveSmart.org is incredibly pleased to bring you live coverage of the “Reaffirming the Role of School Integration in K-12 Education Policy: A Conversation Among Policymakers, Advocates, and Educators” Conference.

This live blogging is sponsored by the Poverty & Race Research Action Council.

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Update 11/27: C-Span has posted video of the morning from this conference on their website.

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10:03am – Bryan Gilmore of the Howard University Fair Housing Clinic calls the room to order, welcomes everyone to the conference, and introduces Dean Kurt. L. Schmoke. Dean Schmoke welcomes everyone to the School, highlights the work of Charles Houston Jr, and frames this event as the continuation of Howard’s committment to civil and human rights.

10:10am – John Brittain, a visiting professor of law at the David A Clarke School of Law, introduced the opening panel, “Why Are We Here?” and highlights the importance of and increasingly multicultural nature of school integration. Panelists include Theodore Shaw, former head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and current professor at Columbia Law School, and Lisa Chavez, research analyst at the Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity at Berkeley Law School.

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