Bureaucracy has stifled urban infrastructure in Brussels. Could digital democracy help?

Gridlock in Brussels again. Image: Getty.

Whinging about EU bureaucrats has become something of a pastime for UK politicians – in the same vein as tax evasion and jeering like schoolboys. But a walk around Brussels actually does reveal city-wide inefficiency that’s difficult to ignore. From crumbling traffic tunnels to a Palace of Justice that’s been undergoing repairs for 30 years, the Belgian capital and the urban heart of European affairs just isn’t very good at getting things done.

In fact, last year, the former head of the city’s infrastructure agency told local lawmakers that the blueprints for one tunnel improvement project had been eaten by rodents. That’s a dodgy excuse for a missing homework assignment at best, and it’s not a claim that flies particularly well with the taxpayers funding city development.

It was recognition of the local government’s failure to drive progress – or prevent stagnation – where it matters most that inspired the creation of Brussels Together last September.

Launched by Xavier Damman, co-founder of digital storytelling tool Storify, this collective of activist groups uses technology to help people organise and work together to accelerate change in the city. “If you are a citizen with a problem, our goal is to make sure there is no barrier in front of you to stop you from solving it,” he explains.

Damman realised that change wasn’t happening at the hands of politicians in Brussels. At the same time, there were already a number of citizen-led improvement initiatives operating in the city – but they were all working independently rather than sharing knowledge and collaborating.

Refugees Got Talent is working to provide space and materials to local refugee artists so that they can practice their art again, while Womer is forging stronger relationships between the city’s consumers and independent local businesses by organising events to bring the two groups together. These organisations, along with others concerned about making Brussels more sustainable, collaborative and forward-looking, now operate as part of Brussels Together — pooling resources, knowledge and volunteers to prompt positive change on the local level.

Through monthly public meetings, Brussels Together quickly identified three stumbling blocks for citizen initiatives: volunteers, visibility and funding. As it is, most citizen-led improvement projects operate in a vacuum — forced to find their own resources and forge brand new networks from day one. Dealing with admin, self promotion and coordinating volunteers is enough to suck the joy out of any activist’s mission.

Luckily, Damman already had a solution up his sleeve in the form of Open Collective, which he co-founded in the US last year alongside former Dropbox employee Aseem Sood and Argentine political scientist Pia Mancini. The transparency-oriented platform helps organisations collect donations and mobilise volunteers by bringing activities like bookkeeping, fundraising and meetings online and out into the open.

Anyone can see the inner-workings of a collective at any time – in stark contrast to local, national and transnational authorities in most European cities. Damman believes this kind of model offers a positive future for activist groups and nonprofit entities alike.

“The old way of organising people, from the top down, doesn’t work anymore,” he says. “It was based on centralisation and the idea that the people at the top know better, which used to be true, because before the internet older people did have more knowledge.”

The biggest pro of Brussels Together so far has been its capacity to take knowledge transfer to the next level, letting groups learn from the experience of other collectives. This shared learning works particularly well in localised areas, where neighbourhood-level insights can be crucial to achieving outcomes big or small.

“People can say, ‘Oh, you actually overpaid for this, so let me put a comment there so that the next initiative will be able to pay less,’” Damman says. “This can only happen through transparency. If there’s no transparency, there’s no collaboration or trust.”

Today, Brussels Together includes more than a dozen separate initiatives, each with its own purpose and aims. But underneath those individual goals lies a common purpose: to take change out of the hands of the inefficient political system and give it to the people.

As Damman puts it: “We don’t want to play the politicians’ game. We’re not trying to work within those systems. Instead, we’re creating our own infrastructure – and getting things done.”


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.