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PENN AND THE CITY

Mapping Human Geography

 

“Properties and people—that’s the way I think about the two types of data we have here,” Dr. Dennis Culhane is saying. “There’s property-specific data, and there’s data about people.”
   
Culhane, an associate professor in the School of Social Work, is co-director of Penn’s Cartographic Modeling Laboratory (CML), which has created a couple of powerful new computerized mapping programs known generically as Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The lab’s Web-based programs—the Neighborhood Information System (NIS) and the Services Utilization Monitoring System (SUMS)—make it possible to access and analyze vast amounts of data compiled by different city agencies.
   
Let’s say you want to research an abandoned property in the Mantua section of West Philadelphia. A quick search in the NIS can show you the location on a detailed map, the owner’s name, taxes owed, liens against it, gas- and water-shutoffs, amount of frontage, cracks visible from street—even, in most cases, a digital photograph. That sort of information used to require visiting about half a dozen city agencies at half a dozen addresses and asking for help from each of them. (Of the roughly 560,000 parcels of land that make up the city of Philadelphia, about 23,000 have abandoned buildings on them, and another 31,000 are vacant lots. Factor in services and utilities, and the picture gets complicated fast.) Now, those affiliated with an approved community organization or city agency can just go to the CML’s Website for the NIS (http:// apollo.gsfa.upenn.edu/ Projects/NIS.asp), enter their password and start clicking. (The systems are not, at this point, accessible to the general public, though Culhane says that Philadelphia’s City Council is in favor of giving the public access to parts of them.)
   
“It used to take people weeks to research a single property,” says Culhane. “Now you can do a property a minute if you want to. It’s a lot more simply done, and it’s in a spatial context. Before, you would just get a list of properties, but you wouldn’t necessarily know what’s next to each other, and you certainly couldn’t tell about houses behind or on the other side of the street.”
   
For those interested in knowing, say, the truancy levels or reading skills in a given school-feeder area, or the number of low-birth-weight babies, SUMS can provide that information with a few mouse-clicks, and analyze it on a graph as well. The practical possibilities of that are almost incalculable.
   
Both programs grew out of Culhane’s scholarly interest in homelessness [“Three Degrees of Separation,” February 1997] and abandoned housing, the latter being a sort of leading economic indicator of the former. As he analyzed the phenomenon of homelessness—using administrative data from city agencies, which he describes as a “gold mine of information” that didn’t require much legwork—he became increasingly interested in the houses in which the homeless had once lived. When he merged their addresses with utility-termination records, he found that one out of every four homeless people had their gas turned off before they ended up in the shelter system, and that 10 percent of those who had their gas turned off ended up in the shelter system. He soon expanded the analysis to other phenomena, such as tax delinquency.
   
Oddly enough, he says, social scientists had not made much use of this sort of data. “Getting data from the city was always difficult,” he explains. “Aside from the fact that there were territorial issues and concerns about letting data out, just the sheer work demand of it was a pain in the butt. So we began to envision what would be a more systematic way of getting data from the city that could be available for research—and would have the city invested in it.”
   
It was the new computerized technology that provided the opportunity, he says: “At the same time that we get these data from the city for research purposes, we can create an application that runs on the Web that will enable city agencies to see each other’s data. It has great power and utility for community groups and the city.” And the result is a “win-win situation—the University wins, because it gets data for research purposes; and the city wins, because they benefit directly and immediately from the fact that these data are integrated and stored in one place.”
   
“It is hard to over-value the potential uses of the work of Dennis Culhane and his colleagues,” says Dr. Lawrence Sherman, director of the Fels Center of Government and the Albert M. Greenfield Professor of Human Relations. “It is on the cutting edge of using evidence to make better policy and to manage operations.”
   
Last summer, M. L. Wernecke, the CLM’s co-director, gave a presentation of the NIS at the Fels Center to members and staff of the Pennsylvania State Legislature. “They were extremely impressed with it,” says Sherman. “They immediately saw how useful the system is for a large number of issues facing state government, including welfare policy and medical care.”
   
Sherman, a strong proponent of evidence-based programs [“A Passion for Evidence,” March/April 2000], notes that as the systems expand to help produce “trend data,” they will become an “integral part of performance-management systems for a wide range of public and non-profit community organizations.
   
“This is literally using information to make the city safer, attract economic development, raise property values and save tax revenues through productivity gains,” Sherman adds. “It is a clear example of the powerful role an engaged research university can play in revitalizing American cities, as well as governance in general.”
   
“We have a big affordable-housing problem in the city,” says Culhane, “and one thing we found that’s almost paradoxical is that the homeless tend to come from neighborhoods not only where there’s the most abandoned housing but where there is the most crowded housing. You have empty houses next to crowded houses. And the reason is because people in the crowded houses don’t have even the income that will enable them to afford the empty house next door and still be profitable to the landlord. The landlord can’t make enough money to pay the taxes, and to repair the property, on the incomes these people can afford for rent.”
   
He zooms in on an abandoned house in the 4400 block of Spruce Street. “This building’s in tough shape,” he says. “Let’s see what [the Water Department] says about it.” He clicks his mouse. “No services discontinuance; no service shutoffs. So [the owner] is still paying the water bill.” He clicks again. “OHCD [Office of Housing and Community Development], in their foot survey in 1999, said it was vacant; there were no cracks visible from the street; no visible roof problems; most openings sealed; no visible fire damage; no apparent illegal activity; house not posted for sale or rent.”
   
A few minutes later, Culhane has exited from the NIS program and has clicked his way over to SUMS, which describes itself as an “online mapping, reporting and data-analysis tool” that uses a secure Web site to offer data about Philadelphia children and families. (Culhane is quick to point out that SUMS offers only “aggregate data about people at a block level,” with “no people-identification attached to it.”)
   
The data comes from the Philadelphia School District; the Department of Human Services, which handles child-abuse and neglect cases; and the Department of Health—“the biggest agencies that deal with people in the city,” in Culhane’s words.
   
The project has created a kind of “forum” in which city agencies can work together and talk to each other. “Those agencies need to plan,” says Culhane. “Let’s say you’re the School District, and you’re planning a program around teen mothers. Well, you need to know where the teen births are occurring. That’s at the health department.” By integrating all that data, he says, agencies and other users can “look at the different variables, see maps of those, and do planning that, by its nature, is inter-agency. Because these agencies are all bumping into each other out there in the neighborhoods —but they don’t really coordinate their program development.”
   
Dr. Richard Gelles, the Joanne and Raymond Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family who serves as co-director of the Center for the Study of Youth Policy, used SUMS to do an assessment of the programs and services offered by the Salvation Army of Greater Philadelphia.
   
“It was quite valuable in demonstrating where they were very strong and had programs matched up with community needs and where there were cooperative opportunities for collaboration with other social-service [programs],” he says, “and where, in other parts of the city, there were problems where they had the expertise to provide services but didn’t as yet have a presence.
   
“I think it’s an enormously valuable program,” he adds, since it allows social scientists to “ensure that certain activities are evidence-based and not based on anecdotes or a fallacious understanding of what the problems are in a community.”
   
Culhane recalls working with the city on after-school programs. “They wanted to know, not only where are the schools and where are the kids, but where are the kids who are getting into trouble, and where’s the delinquency, or the truancy, happening. And then, if you wanted to do specific programming that related to family stability, you might want to look at the child-welfare data.
   
“Imagine what it used to take to make a map of that,” he says. “Within one agency alone, it would have taken a long time, and now we can do it immediately. And then you can actually zoom in—let’s say the Mantua area—and see all the variability in school-reading performance. Then you can turn on these things—libraries, recreation centers, schools and parks. You can begin to see where are the resources relative to what’s happening in terms of performance in these schools.
   
“The Health and Human Service world is really very excited about the SUMS
application,” he says. “We have several cities around the country who want us to work with them to replicate this project, because it can be done relatively quickly.”

   
City Council is also intrigued. The SUMS’ “Click-Query Matrix” allows users to choose the geographic level to work with, which includes councilmanic districts. “This is very powerful for going to city councilpeople,” Culhane says. “It gives them statistics that they wouldn’t have, and you can view data elements or create a raw-data map.” It also allows agencies to view the data in block groups, census tracts, school-feeder areas, health-center districts and school clusters.
   
“For once, now we have the city with a vested interest in sharing data with us,” says Culhane, “because they can update and keep these things relevant. And for them, it’s a pretty big change as well, because they’re going to be sharing their data at a level of geography that they never could before,” at an astonishingly fast speed. In doing so, it will enable city agencies to become considerably more productive.
   
“We are working with no fewer than 15 different entities in the city,” he points out. “So in that alone, it’s been a major educational experience. We dealt with a lot of skepticism and anti-Penn attitudes, both in city government and among the community groups, that Penn could deliver something that had a value to the community. Because there was a perception that Penn was only interested in the data for its own purposes—for publications, et cetera. So I think this has been a process of trying to reforge lots of links that were there many years ago between the University and the city around public policy and city planning.”


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Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 1/2/01