Alex Hill, the founder of Detroitography, spoke to a packed room inside the South Thayer Building about putting an emphasis on the human side of statistics and big data.
Although not a native of Detroit, Alex has been able to fuse his background in medical anthropology with his current work at the Wayne State Pediatric Research Center and love of statistics to create a number of incredible maps of Detroit.
All of the maps are created using open source data to make them accessible to everyone. The aim, as Alex explained, is to present data in a way that shows the actual implications and makes it relevant to people.
When bringing up the Detroit bankruptcy–the largest municipal bankruptcy in history at 17 billion dollars–Alex addressed how the water shutoff was a fatal flaw in looking at data. While the city saw that they could save over 100 million dollars by confronting delinquent accounts, no one thought to consider the fact that the majority of delinquent accounts were owned by people that could not pay them off.
The rest of Alex’s sleek red, white and black presentation addressed the overarching question: how do we relate data not just to other data, but to people?
There is a risk of drowning in big data, as he explained, and it is up to us to figure out how the data relates to human beings. One of the biggest flaws about statistics is the belief that algorithms are completely objective. This is completely false–someone had to write the code for that algorithm, and they chose all the variables. Nothing is completely unbiased.
Numbers don’t motivate, but the connection to the people that correspond to those numbers. One map of the MidCassTown Corridor was a collection of responses from residents of that very corridor. Some residents called it the Cass Corridor, and some called it Midtown. Mapping the data showed the Midtown-naming residents to be in the more affluent, modernized areas. As one individual stated: “They [white people] call it Midtown.”
Detroitography is an interesting concept, there’s no doubt about that. Will it be effective? Will mapping data about Detroit have a positive impact on policy decisions for the city, or will it turn out to be simply another aesthetically pleasing project related to the Motor City?