How London became the first smart city back in 1854

Broadwick Street: the site of London's first data revolution. Image: Google Streetview.

 London became the first smart city back in 1854, argues Eddie Copeland, when it first used data to solve a civic problem by creating a life-saving map. But, he adds, the powers overseeing the capital still struggle to follow through on that legacy.

Those keen on London historical trivia may recognise the story that Copeland, the director of government innovation at future-looking quango Nesta, is referencing from the date alone. 1854 was the year of the Soho cholera outbreak, when Dr John Snow famously saved the day by figuring out that the disease was spread by water rather than “bad” air.

At the time, Copeland explained before a talk at Nesta’s FutureFest conference in London over the weekend, people thought disease came “from bad smells passed through the air. And poorer people who were less hygienic were [seen as] vulnerable due to their poor moral standing.”

As an anaesthetist who used gas to knock out his patients, Dr Snow realised that the digestive symptoms of cholera suggested it had nothing to do with lungs, as public health officials believed.

“So he started plotting the data,” Copeland says, “literally drawing on a map where people had died, and traced it down to the fact all those people lived in proximity to a certain water pump.”

Dr Snow didn’t just pinpoint the deadly water source: he spotted that a brewery within proximity of the infected pump saw no deaths, because the workers drank their product rather than local water.

Rather apt, then, that there’s a pub celebrating Snow in Soho. “It was fairly unprecedented. The use of statistics to diagnose and confirm a hypothesis was relatively new at that stage.”

Snow's map. Image: public domain.

Still not very smart

As much as we all love a good map, is that alone enough to be called a “smart city”?

Copeland argues the term “smart city” is less about the technology – “the internet of things, driverless cars, talking lamp posts” – and more about using data to solve urban problems. “Those kind of data techniques basically inform the way cities are doing data analytics today – including projects by the mayor of London right now – and have barely changed at all.”

Indeed, Nesta is at this very moment running a similar project, plotting housing complaints on a map to find hot spots of unlicensed landlords overstuffing rental properties.

Such data isn’t always either welcome or understood – but that’s not new, and reflects another lesson we could have learned from Dr Snow’s experience in 1854. “They basically ignored him,” Copeland says of the health experts of the day, who instead cherry-picked facts to support their existing beliefs about smelly air.

Dr Snow’s data crunching did convince some local government leaders, who famously removed the Broad Street pump handle to prevent further outbreak. But the government wasn’t ready to “recognise it as a legitimate process”.

Fast forward to today. The idea we should collect and use data about citizens to inform city work – whether health care or infrastructure or transport or whatever else – is well established. But as Dr Snow learned, actual action can still depend on the existing beliefs of the local council.

“There’s a famous expression that we don’t so much have evidence-based policy making as policy-based evidence making,” Copeland says. Confirmation bias means we pick and choose data to fit our pre-existing ideas, just as the bad air theorists did in 1854.

Joined up jigsaw

London itself is “very forward thinking on open data”, Copeland said, with particular praise for the London DataStore. “But still, the GLA [Greater London Authority] does not collect any data sets from the London boroughs, other than stuff with a statutory obligation or planning applications.

“Even today,” he adds, “we have very few cases where we’re using data at a London scale – one exception would be TfL, which has a remit for transport across the capital, but it’s really rare.”

There are reasons for this. For a start, it’s not easy. Councils face technical challenges, with many using legacy systems that lock data into proprietary systems or hold it in different formats: location, for example, could be held as a grid reference, post code or full street address.

There are also legal barriers around data protection, real and perceived, and the usual cultural inertia, with some staff as yet unable to make the leap to sharing resources with neighbouring organisations.

And that doesn’t work, Copeland argues, if we’re to make leaps forward in our urban understanding as Dr Snow did. “Everyone has their piece of the jigsaw, no one can see the big picture,” he says. “And that’s what we’re trying to do, put the jigsaw together so we can start tackling these issues in a more intelligent way.”

Until we manage that, when it comes to data use in London, we still know nothing – sorry, John Snow.

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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.