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Michael Flowers of New York Analytics Speaks on Urban Data

Michael Flowers

Michael Flowers during his talk at the Guggenheim last week. Photo: Alisha Levin

Great ideas—ones that are simple, straightforward, efficient and effective—often seem obvious, but only after someone else brings them to life. Michael Flowers and his team at New York Analytics (NYA) did just that. Their great idea was to distribute information to organizations and individuals to whom that information would be helpful. As Flowers explained to a crowded room of students, architects, artists, and urban enthusiasts at the Guggenheim Museum in New York last Friday, NYA was the first to tap into New York City’s existing treasure trove of information. Once they figured out “what the city knows, and how it knows it,” NYA gave relevant information to agencies and helped them deliver social services more efficiently.

Flowers’ presentation was the first in a series of programs that complement the Participatory City exhibition currently on view at the museum. Like the exhibition, the series aims to engage the public in discussion about challenges to urban living and solutions to those challenges.

In his talk, Flowers, whose official title within NYA is Director of Analytics, discussed the projects NYA works on, and explored how data analysis can improve city life. Explaining that NYA deals in three main areas: “day-to-day operations,” “economic and development interests,” and “disaster relief” efforts, he walked the audience through examples of projects in each area. One “day-to-day operations” project he described helped the city prioritize where to send its limited number of housing-inspection agents: NYA found a correlation between illegally converted apartments and fires, then used several factors—such as the age of the building and any prior complaints about it—to determine which buildings were most at risk for fires, and therefore also likely to be illegally converted. The city was then able to go to those buildings first. Without changing the inspections themselves, city agents became more effective and protected more people from potentially dangerous situations.

Flowers also talked about the ways NYA serves individual New Yorkers and their small business interests. For instance, a small-business owner looking to open a shop or restaurant, rather than contacting commercial real estate brokers and hiring someone to do market research, can find arguably more helpful information—like foot traffic on a particular street, thanks to subway turnstile counts—through NYA, and use that data to decide where to open up a new store.

Flowers and audience members alike seemed excited about the ways in which technology that enables the collection and dissemination of data will continue to enhance the way cities function. One member of the audience did ask about the ethical implications of making so much information available to the public. Flowers acknowledged that there is potential for wrongdoing, but reiterated his belief in the system, “the value in democratizing analytics,” and the merit of government transparency: “The reality is, the more we can let people know about their government, the better we are.” Flowers also noted that, “Information helps city organizations run more efficiently,” and “[provides] them with tools to solve problems.”

Ultimately, you could look at what Flowers and his team do as a new form of urban “upcycling”: they repurpose information and add value to it, and the city, in the process. How else might the data they collect be “upcycled” to make city life better? Add your thoughts in the comments section below. And if you’d like to get more insights from Michael Flowers’s talk, take a look at our archived tweets from the event here.