Does NYC's quest for data actually offer any insight?
Last February, Bronx City Councilman Andy King described a bill requiring annual reports comparing the demographic and test score statistics of traditional public schools with those of co-located charter schools as a “very important” step toward intercampus collaboration. The council discussed the measure during two hearings and received written testimony from more than 30 parties, before ultimately passing it five months later.
The report isn’t due until the end of August, and yet the statistics are already available—the state Department of Education has been chronicling the same information on every school in New York on its website.
King’s legislation is among at least 185 bills seeking the compiling of fiscal, statistical or other quantitative information that have been introduced since elections ushered in new representatives at City Hall last January. Roughly one-fifth of all council measures proposed since last winter seek data. Of these, about two-thirds do not cite a specific course of action tied to the data.
Current lawmakers aren’t the first to seek the collection of quantitative information. The 2012 Open Data Law details how agencies will work toward periodically posting data sets on a central online portal by the end of 2018. Some 1,300 such documents are on the site, chronicling everything from a map of Brooklyn’s trees to the number of city prison visitors arrested by fiscal year. (Some statistics originally set to be posted on the site, such as the NYPD’s murder report, were deemed too interpretive to qualify as “data,” according to City Council Technology Chairman James Vacca, and have been removed from the city’s compliance plan.)
Even among relatively informed New Yorkers like civic group executives and community board leaders, there seems to be a lack of knowledge about the portal, Vacca said. The site appears to have slipped lawmakers’ minds, too; very few, if any, of their requests for information such as demographic analyses of city contractors or an examination of foot traffic near park drinking fountains specify that the final reports be posted on the website. But when there is not always a clear goal for using and distributing data, why do so many elected officials seek these statistics?
Rhetoricians like Don Waisanen, an associate professor of communication at Baruch College, describe data as one of the quickest ways to sway constituents or stakeholders—especially when officials can offer up the so-called hard evidence for vetting.
“We call it the halo effect,” Waisanen said. “It’s like you draw a little angel’s halo around whatever your issue is. Often there’s a rhetoric of, ‘We post things online. We’re very transparent with our data.’ It’s meant to seem like there’s no persuasion going on. But there always is.”
Indeed, Vacca said the portal’s primary purpose is to increase transparency. The councilman said constituents should not have to “take his word” when they wonder why a stop sign or speed bump installation request was denied or whether catch basins have been cleaned as frequently as specified in city protocol. Rather, he said, they should be able to look up the information online.
Waisanen and other experts stressed that policymakers are acting prudently when they study proposals before investing public money in them. But Waisanen pointed out that officials shouldn’t fool themselves; data is never completely objective. There is always a certain level of persuasion inherent in selecting data—or the algorithms used to cull calculations—which ultimately frame arguments from specific vantage points.
And this data-driven approach doesn’t always encourage direct interaction with constituents. For instance, one bill calls for a feasibility study to gauge the cost and environmental impact of placing sensors on trash cans so trucks can empty them as soon as they are full; Waisanen points out that the study could benefit from focus groups or interviews with those in garbage-burdened areas.
“Sometimes just saying, ‘We’re looking for data’ is a way of not being accountable. … Data is always tied to human beings or human beings’ interests,” he said. “ So is the data sort of a way of pushing accountability away from certain people or groups?”
Sometimes such statistical analysis can come across as a stalling technique. Geoffrey Croft of the New York City Park Advocates described legislation seeking further detail on private funding for park conservancies and another calling for a breakdown of maintenance crew costs by park as “subterfuge.” Croft said the information targeted by the bills would be valuable, but ultimately, the measures do not outline any legislative or regulatory process to rejuvenate languishing parks. “These disparities exist because the same people introducing these bills are also voting for these outrageously insufficient budgets for parks,” he said.
While acknowledging that green space inequity had been explored during the 2013 mayoral campaign, City Council Parks Chairman Mark Levine said his bill requiring a more detailed report on where private funds wind up in public parks would mandate “uniform, clear” reporting on the matter for the first time. “We don’t need this data now to know that we’re underfunding neighborhood parks, but this will strengthen our argument and will, I hope, guide the budget process in coming years in a more impactful way,” Levine said.
Similarly, King’s office said his bill on co-located school statistics would help keep the city Department of Education accountable by ensuring it examines how equitably resources are distributed on co-located campuses. Because the council has no jurisdiction over school policy, Council Education Committee Chairman Daniel Dromm said, sometimes all it can do is amass information and “use the office as a bully pulpit.” His colleague, Councilman Rory Lancman, said agencies can feel pressure to perform responsibly when they know the public will be scrutinizing statistics such as how frequently prison inmates are put in solitary confinement or how often police make arrests at schools.
King’s staff said the council had a required cost-benefit analysis conducted before voting on the education measure, which concluded it was not an inefficient use of resources. No council member interviewed by City & State said they were aware of any situations in which the work of compiling data detracted from an agency’s ability to meet its central mandate.
When asked about the impact on historically burdened offices, such as the Human Rights Commission or the parks department’s maintenance team, the mayor’s office said the administration tries to help. “As part of their oversight role, City Council members often request data either formally or informally, and we do our best to deliver this information—whether it’s a simple request or as part of a broader proposed law,” a spokesperson for the administration said.
New York City’s struggle to find the right balance between pumping out raw data for public inspection and taking the time to contextualize it is not unique, according to Derek Mueller, an associate professor of writing at Eastern Michigan University and board member of the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative.
“You could say there’s been a fetishization of data analytics that has crept up over the past decade pretty steadily—companies, management, government, many walks of life, in higher ed, in the sports world, especially, we see this presumption that the data analytics are going to answer for us questions more intricately than we’ve been able answer them before,” he said. “There’s still a lot of work going on around how to do that well and sort of what is the right balance between computational processing and human processing.”