Big Data for Places

Where should we locate the 2014 Chicago Jane’s Walks?

In the most historical neighborhood? The neighborhood that’s experiencing the most dramatic change? Where I can find an expert speaker? How can we cover the costs? There are a lot of considerations that go into planning Jane’s Walks, some of them infuriatingly practical. (I’m always open to suggestions!)

I know I’m in good company in juggling a lot of factors in making these decisions. Jane’s Walk City Organizers – and municipalities – around the world face the same issues in deciding what to do with places that matter—honor and preserve or let go?

Here are some big-picture ways of framing the issue for Chicago:
• Of all the public schools that are closed or closing, which are worthy of saving and repurposing and why?
• What’s the best way to evaluate places of worship in changing neighborhoods?
• Do we even know how many structures are real assets in communities without a comprehensive database?
• How should we define “assets”?
• What would a comprehensive database look like?

There’s a more diverse group than ever involved in preservation decision-making, many unschooled in traditional preservation skills. Advisory boards, Mayoral commissions, the landmarks preservation commissions, funders, as well as active and dedicated neighborhood groups all need the best information they can get and the help of trained professionals to make the best decisions possible.

“As a Board member at the neighborhood association, I hear about the pros and cons of preservation efforts for projects in my own community,” says Patricia Joseph from Park West. “Before I head off to a meeting with the Alderman or a developer and represent the concerns of the community, I’d like to have all the information, a framework to understand and even visualize the many factors involved. In the best of all possible worlds, something like a realtor’s multiple listing service combined with Google Street Maps and Wikipedia entry would be ideal.”

It’s more important than ever for professionals to provide for others the comprehensive information and effective tools that frame the issues and foster understanding. It’s an expansion of the thumbs up, thumbs down recommendations, and more of a partnership in decision-making. But it does mean getting out in front with good information and analysis.

Information is everywhere: piles of paper in a storeroom, on Excel spreadsheets on a desktop or at a website or on a giant SQL database at a government office or private firm. Maybe it’s time to comprehensively pull them out, dust them off and make sure this information is ready for use by professionals and neighborhood groups alike.

How about using the data to answer the questions like these?:
• Comparables – We expect to see comparables before we purchase a new home. Why not comps for preservation?
• What else is out there that we should be considering?
• If we don’t save this one, what should we consider in deciding to save another?
• How many similar buildings are out there?

Uptown Theater: Always on the verge of rehabilitation

Uptown Theater: Always on the verge of rehabilitation

Ramova Theater - Talked about, but rehab hasn't happened yet

Ramova Theater – Talked about, but rehab hasn’t happened yet

• Substitutions — If a building formerly used as school isn’t workable, maybe a former power plant is or other large structure will work.

• Overlays
• What else is in the neighborhood?
• Where are the retail centers? What about public transportation?
• Where are ethnic, social and cultural enclaves to be honored and supported?

This year, The Economist ( complimented Chicago on its open data initiative, in which city data–from sanitation route info to vacant building addresses to fire reports–is simply made available, and the computer nerd community uses the data to develop entirely new services that identify problems and fix them.

This is a great step forward: is it time for those who honor places that matter – and Jane’s Walk organizers – to join them?

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