I've been thinking a lot about the role of "facts" in our society lately...perhaps particularly since June 16th, 2015...and perhaps amplified over the course of the last few days given the impending importance of November 8th, 2016 in our history. While I will most certainly refrain from making any overt political statements in this medium, we as a data-driven, evidence-led startup feel it's important to ask the question - what role will facts (and by extension, data, evidence, empiricism) play in a post-Trumpian era? To address this issue, we present below an example of a recent error of fact made about our research, a historical rationale of why facts are important, and a timeline of events illustrating our own commitment to facts...
A couple of weeks ago, I posted a blog serving as a Cliffnotes version of a peer-reviewed, academic article I coauthored earlier this year. My aim was to make the data-driven, evidence-based practice and policy recommendations that resulted from our statistically significant findings accessible to non-academics. The post was (mostly) met with high fanfare with the exception of one (to my knowledge) detractor.
Just the Facts, Please
Now, let's get one thing straight - as an academic (albeit one turned entrepreneur) I am used to (and welcome) reasoned criticism - in other words, that which is based on fact. But the fundamental premise of this detractor's post - that our evaluation of Walk Score's appropriateness as a proxy for walkability (and by extension its effectiveness as a planning and policy tool) was “needless and poorly-grounded” - was based on a flagrant error of fact. Mr. Cortright, writing for the City Observatory, falsely claimed that our study was "based on an analysis of three instances in Washington DC suburbs," but, as we clearly stated in the blog post, our study was based on 115 neighborhoods across the Washington DC Metro region (comprising over 1500 blocks). Considering Mr. Cortright bases most of his consequent arguments on this fundamental error of fact, the majority of his piece doesn’t amount to more than just a house of cards (and accordingly we will forgo any tit-for-tat defense).
In Data We Trust
We are pointing this out not (merely) to defend the integrity of our research (and our company), but to show our commitment to facts (data - including quantitative data like State of Place but also qualitative data, evidence, and empiricism) especially in light of (yes, our political climate, but moreover) our mission to "Moneyball" city-making. State of Place’s vision is not really about creating a more robust, accurate measure of walkability. Our much more ambitious aim is to fundamentally disrupt the opinion-based, expert-driven, ideological, top-down approach to urban planning and real estate development, and usher in an evidence-based, data-driven, empirical, bottom-up one. Our reason for doing so?: To help cities and developers make the (objective) case for great places (and to enhance the effectiveness of their planning, policy, and investment decisions). Our method to do so: our freshly-minted, SBIR-funded, predictive urban data analytics software.
Besides the obvious, why are we bothering to comment on this error of fact? Let's start with some context…
Me + Data = (Longtime) BFFs
When I was a Master’s of Architecture student at the University of Miami, as a Psychology major, I approached my designs from a human-centered, social-scientist perspective. I was skeptical of adopting any one ideology as my design “religion.” Instead, I looked to data and precedent to understand how my design would potentially impact its inhabitants. My process ran decidedly counter to the prevailing methods being taught and implemented by most of my mentors and peers. Consequently, I chose to pursue a PhD in Planning, focusing on how urban design impacted behavior, with the aim to push the (built environment) design profession toward a more empirical (vs. normative) approach. While it’s been nearly 20 years since my time at U Miami, the ideologically-based approach I encountered (and rebuked) then mostly pervades today.
As a (Historical) Matter of Fact
Why does this matter? Taking a step back, consider the example of the "towers in the park" theory espoused by the (in)famous Le Corbusier. He believed his proposed new urban form for Paris would heighten residents' health and wellbeing. But he had no factual (data-driven, evidence-led) basis for any such assertion - it was simply part of his ideology. Thankfully, Paris (at least its urban core) was spared this fate...but we all (now) know that his theory was dead wrong and its application had widespread negative consequences (as a matter of fact). The countless developments, neighborhoods, and even cities built upon the basis of his ideology were expensive (failed) experiments that served only to "reject his (null) hypothesis."
I believe we have (mostly) learned the errors of his ways – well, at least of his theory - but we have not really absorbed the folly (and at times danger) of basing widespread planning and policy on one (revered Starchitect/Planning Star) expert's theory or even a popular ideology. We are still drinking ideologically-laced kool-laid - albeit a more sustainable, walkable kool-laid - but still kool-laid. For example, I have previously warned that despite mounting evidence that clearly points to the robust benefits of a walkable built environment, we should not see walkability as a panacea for all of society’s ills...that the path to a more livable city is not merely a walkable one. I debunked the myth of walkability as a silver bullet, explaining (in as non-geeky a way possible) that the “facts of place” are sometimes quite complex, and that taking a myopic view of a fact may actually serve to manipulate, falsify, or exaggerate it (case in point: it is true that our Walk Score study drew upon three blocks to illustrate real life examples of our findings; but it is not true that our entire study was based on those three blocks – sorry, this was too convenient of an example not to use it!).
Now, consider that as an entrepreneur, I had more to gain by letting people continue to be led by an overly-simplistic understanding of how the built environment (walkability or otherwise) influenced behavior than to (let's face it, geekily) explain how it was (statistically and methodologically) incorrect to adopt a "build it and they will come mentality" to urban planning and design. But allowing this misinterpretation of fact to run amok would have been anathema to our mission...our commitment to data-driven, evidence-based planning practice and policy will always trump (sorry) any self-interest I may have as an entrepreneur.
Data Geeks (and Everyone Else) Unite?
But today, we are compelled by something more base than warning against the ills of misrepresenting or misunderstanding facts. Today, our fundamental point is even more simple: Facts matter. Facts are not feelings, beliefs, values. Facts are not based on opinions – expert or lay. Facts are not based on any one ideology – reasonable or radical. Now, by no means does this mean that feelings, beliefs, values, or opinions don't have a place in professional discourse – they absolutely do. But what it does mean is that facts are, by definition, indisputable. By definition. Facts should serve as the standard bearer for decision-making regarding urban planning practice and policy…they should be the foundation of all reasoned, logical, informed debates about the future of our cities...they should form the basis for (Moneyballing) city-making.
Amidst today's sound and fury, we wanted to take this time to promise to always serve as a purveyor of facts, a trustworthy and credible source of knowledge, and of course, a data-driven, evidence-based platform to drive (ahem, walk) informed, empirical decisions and reasoned, effective arguments that enhance and promote the power of place...