“We let algorithms redesign Scotland’s local government boundaries.” Here’s what happened

Glen Coe. The Highlands council areas are sparsely populated, wherever you draw the boundaries. Image: Getty.

There are certain things a wise politician would never tinker with: big issues such as council tax reform, which are placed in the “too difficult” box and remain unaddressed and unresolved for decades. Another such item is the redrawing of local government boundaries.

It’s not exactly a glamorous topic and, as BBC Scotland Political Editor Brian Taylor noted in 2012, “it is a courageous politician indeed who tampers with cooncil boundaries”/

Over the past few years in Scotland, there have been calls to reform council boundaries, and give local authorities a greater say in decisions made at Holyrood. But so far, nothing has been done and the current set of 32 Scottish council areas remain.

Ripe for reform

Despite the political risk associated with boundary reform, other governments across the world have grasped this particular nettle, because it can lead to more efficient governance and cut costs.

Recent regional rejigs in Denmark and France show that it can be done. And we believe an algorithmic approach can at the very least contribute to the debate. In France, the so-called “big bang des régions” of 2016 resulted in a total of 13 new regions, from a previous set of 22.

So, we thought it would be useful to make some suggestions about what a revised Scottish council geography could look like. To do this, we used commuting data and an algorithm called Combo, which groups together places with the strongest ties, using a set of rules. And instead of the current set of 32 Scottish council areas, we ended up with 17.

Combo shows how commuting patterns can help define areas. Image: Alasdair Rae and Ruth Hamilton.

The full set of results and the detailed method can be found in our recently published paper. However, we should emphasise that these are not proposals for new council areas. Instead, we hope our results offer decision-makers some useful evidence on where boundaries could be drawn, if they were based on travel to work patterns.

Of course, commuting is only one part of the story. But it’s a very important part, particularly in places such as Glasgow, where the local economy is highly dependent on commuters living in other areas.

Overall, we think the results are largely plausible. But they also show that, when it comes to drawing boundaries on maps, algorithms definitely shouldn’t have the last word – not least because they don’t have what we might call common sense.

Scotland’s council areas, if they were based on commuting and drawn by algorithm. Image: Alasdair Rae and Ruth Hamilton.

As you can see from the map, there are now 17 areas instead of the current set of 32 – two fewer than those proposed by think tank Reform Scotland in 2012. The most populous of the new areas is Greater Glasgow, with close to 1.2m people. This would make it the largest local authority in the UK.

This is followed by Edinburgh & the Lothians with 835,000. Lanarkshire is next, with 575,000, then Grampian with 476,000 people. These areas are considerably larger than their current equivalents.

Others, like Highland, Moray and Inverclyde stay the same, indicating that some administrative boundaries match existing travel to work patterns quite well. Or, to put it more simply, in some cases political and economic geographies look very similar.

Is or ought?

The table below shows the relationship between our new Combo areas and existing council areas. In the final column, you can see what percentage of the population of each new area comes from existing council areas. For example, 50.8 per cent of our new Greater Glasgow area is from the current City of Glasgow and 57.1 per cent of the new Edinburgh & the Lothians area is from the current City of Edinburgh.

Combo areas compared to current council areas. Image: Alasdair Rae and Ruth Hamilton.

On some levels, these new algorithmic subdivisions make a lot of sense – but others clearly require a human touch. For one thing, it doesn’t look quite right based on our understanding of how places function and how local services are delivered. The fact that 2 per cent of the population of our new Dundee, Perth and Angus area is across the Tay in Fife strongly suggests human intervention is needed.

The second issue relates to Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume’s “is-ought” question. This is because algorithms are very good at telling us what is, but they cannot tell us what ought to be.


For example, the algorithm suggests that Inverclyde is an entirely separate area. But given how close it is to our Greater Glasgow area, from a human and common sense perspective, it appears that it ought to be part of Greater Glasgow. Indeed, such a geography would match the current NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde region.

We need to recognise that algorithms are effectively blind to questions of history and identity. For example, our new boundaries know nothing of the Kingdom of Fife, or the Pictish Kingdom that preceded it. Yet such history often matters deeply to people and places.

This is where human decision-making, nuance and common sense come in, and why – when it comes to “too difficult” issues such as local boundary reform – humans should have the final say. But in getting to that point, we believe algorithms can certainly lend a helping hand.

The Conversation

Alasdair Rae, Professor in Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield and Ruth Hamilton, Teaching Associate, University of Sheffield.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

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.