I was pleased to see my book, Shape Your Neighborhood: How to Use Public Data for Community Advocacy and Activism, listed for sale on Walmart.com. My guess is that they don’t know how subversive the book will be—including a section on this great visualization from Flowing Data on the spread of Walmart. (Of course, how could they know about this section, since I haven’t even finished writing the book yet…)
Monthly Archives: October 2011
Last year, I was excited to learn that Census Bureau was beginning work to establish a new, supplemental poverty measure, to address long-standing problems with the official statistic. The Bureau was quick to ensure us that the official poverty measure would continue to be used to establish eligibility for government programs, and “will remain the definitive statistical measure,” but based on their elegant description of the new measure as “a more complex and refined statistic,” both the data fiends and the poverty scholars started to get excited. I was reminded of a great story by Barry Bluestone, Director of the Dukakis Center at Northeastern University: as he tells it, while trying to explain about different ways to measure unemployment to a reporter, he became frustrated at the press’s unwillingness to delve into the complexity of these numbers. When the reporter explained, “I can’t print three different numbers for unemployment—people won’t follow that,” Bluestone retorted, “Have you ever read your paper?,” and went on to point out how almost every section had multiple measures: weather (temperature, wind-chill, humidity index), business (high, low, 52-week average), sports (batting average, slugging percentage, RBIs, OBP, and so on).
Unfortunately, it appears that the supplemental poverty measure is the latest good idea to fall victim to budget cuts: in a recent update (which received significantly less press than the original release), the Bureau reports:
Since the FY 2011 federal budget did not include the funding requested by the President for the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) initiative, the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics do not currently have the resources necessary to move the Supplemental Poverty Measure from research mode to production mode. Without these additional resources, the September 2011 release date for the Supplemental Poverty Measure estimates suggested in the Interagency Technical Working Group document is not feasible.
The update goes on to note the useful ground-work that was undertaken over the past 18 months on the topic, including a few conferences and some very useful reports (see the Census Bureau page collecting Working Papers and Conference Presentations), and promising some modified approach to yield at least partial results in the near future, but overall you gotta figure it’s pretty bad when we can’t even afford to measure how poor we’ve become.
A number of conservative news outlets—including the New York Daily News and MSNBC–-have begun to call attention to the New York City’s estimated $2M price tag for police overtime associated with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, blaming the protesters for wasting the taxpayers’ money. (In addition, some more mainstream papers have started to pick up the story, including the Metro, and some other “Occupy Target” cities have attempted to tally their own expenses, too.)
Naturally, my liberal knee-jerk side kicked into gear, trying to figure out what was wrong with this story. As a numbers guy, my first reaction was to check the math: could it really be that much? But after some quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, the figure seems quite reasonable, especially given the protests are now in their fourth week: 3 weeks = 500 hours; 25 officers x maybe $100/hour x 500 hours = $1.25M; an average of 50 officers per hour would be double that; sounds about right.
In fact, by comparison, the police overtime bill for the four-day Democratic National Convention in Boston was over $5M (in 2004 dollars), and the Examiner reports that San Francisco spend over $340K on police overtime associated with the Giants’ 2011 World Series victory—and that was mostly all on one parade. So maybe this protest is actually a bargain, as big public parties go. And in a time when we are worried about job creation and stimulus funds, putting a couple million dollars in the hands of the hard-working NYPD doesn’t seem like a bad idea—I imagine the money will trickle around in all sorts of ways…
Next I tried to find flaw in the overall premise: why should we worry about the cost of this particular need for police protection, rather than all sorts of other things? Aren’t these protesters citizens as well, entitled to their share of free expression, even if it comes at some expense. How can we be outraged at this “cost” to the public caused by the protests, etc.
But upon further reflection, I realized that we should be outraged—police overtime is costing the city a great deal of money, at a time when budgets are tight, regardless of how it might trickle down and keep people employed. That said, the problem I was sensing was with the spin of the headline, not the facts: rather than focus our scorn on the protesters, who are simply crying “foul” and trying to get some attention in the best American tradition, we need to think deeper and lay the blame on the root cause of their outrage. If a deep-water oil rig leaked toxic sludge all over our beaches, for example, we would expect the company to pay for the clean-up and associated public safety costs; if big tobacco intentionally addicts our population to cancer sticks, we would pass along the health care bill to them; and if an industry built on corporate greed and fraudulent practices wrecks our economy, our neighborhoods, and our social safety net, the least they can do would be to pay for the police overtime necessary while we vent our frustration and seek some creative solutions.
Self-promotion: The newsletter of the MIT Alumni Association ran a nice piece on a workshop I ran a while back on using magic tricks in public meetings. I especially liked this photo, which helps illustrate the way that making a mess can help lighten the mood of a meeting (and can call our attention to the potential to make a real mess if we don’t work together and develop good plans…).
The Census Bureau continues to roll out the latest data from the American Community Survey, last month announcing the availability of the first real nationwide data for 2010 in the form of the 1-year ACS Estimates. I’ve been conducting some trainings on how to get and use ACS data for local-level community planning (self promotion: check out the Mel King Institute’s training in Boston, or wait for us to offer it again), which has prompted me to pay some more attention to the new “American FactFinder” platform, which has prompted me to write this post.