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How San Francisco Is Using Technology to Measure Neighborhood Sustainability

The city's Sustainable Systems Framework -- a collaboration with the University of Chicago -- will help officials gather feedback and make forecasts for urban development programs and construction.

Wikimedia Commons
By Jason Shueh

For cities toying with the idea to invest in data analytics, San Francisco may be the next big contender.

The city’s planning department is collaborating with the University of Chicago to engineer a new analytics dashboard for its neighborhoods that will measure performance statistics centering on sustainability. The dashboard will include neighborhood data for energy, water usage, materials management, health, local habitat, community investment and social support, as well as attributes like access and mobility.

Lisa Chen, a planner at San Francisco’s Citywide Planning Division, said the purpose of the project, officially titled the Sustainable Systems Framework, is for city officials to gather feedback and make forecasts for urban development programs and construction. The beta version is slated for release by the end of the first quarter of 2015, with a version for the public expected to follow.

"The final vision for this work is that we will have an interactive interface for internal stakeholders to evaluate future projects and plans," Chen said. "And then ideally, in the future, there would also be a simplified public facing interface."

Design and technology for the dashboards were inspired by multiple things, the most notable being the city of Chicago’s own WindyGrid, which is an open sourced data system that acts as a repository for all of Chicago’s departments -- 7 million rows of data collected each day. It is one of the largest municipal data ventures of its kind.

A team member developing WindyGrid’s open source code, Matthew Gee, who also is the University of Chicago’s project coordinator, said San Francisco’s adoption of the technology is groundbreaking.

"The interesting thing is that the San Francisco project is actually one of the first real tangible use cases for this technology that has come out of the initial beta version of WindyGrid,” Gee said.

As the dashboards are rolled out, Gee said the city will, for the first time in its history, enable itself to gather regularly updated metrics for specific neighborhoods. Insights from the datasets, which are provided by departments and housed in San Francisco’s Open Data Portal, could mean targeted policies, more efficient resource management and data-driven accountability for community projects.

"That kind of insight into how local programs, initiatives and investments have changed and improved the area around us hasn't been possible in the past -- or at least openly available -- and that's really exciting,” Gee said.

Perhaps less exciting is the data work that’s ahead. Beyond technological expertise, Gee explained the university’s role in the project is also to scour San Francisco’s many departments for useful datasets representing sustainable metrics such as energy and materials usage to the more nebulous performance categories such as “Community Identity,” a category weighing everything from historic preservation to block parties.

Another hurdle to overcome will be mapping. The neighborhood boundaries will not necessarily be based on San Francisco zip codes or even traditional neighborhood borders. Instead, the project calls for neighborhoods to be divided into eco-districts, neighborhood-sized areas that share common traits of residential, commercial and industrial characteristics.

Though this may strike as unorthodox, Chen said the methodology is well-researched and dates back to 2010 when the city of Portland, Ore., first introduced the idea. Now San Francisco is one of more than 20 cities to embrace the concept -- first introduced to the city in January 2013 that promotes focused management on similar areas -- as opposed to one master plan to govern an entire city.

Chen credited fellow departments for the city’s current progress with the eco-districts and the data massive data sifting efforts needed to create the dashboards.

“Getting agencies to coordinate efforts even in a single neighborhood can be a real challenge," she said, "and I think having performance metrics is one way to really engage agencies as well as the broader community."

Once the gradual process of establishing eco-districts is done and data is inserted into public dashboards, the long-term vision for San Francisco ventures beyond city limits. Gee emphasized the project is open sourced and is meant to be used by other cities as free software.

“We want this to be replicable” Gee said. “We want this to be a demonstration project that shows cities the power of data and citizen-facing technologies that change the way cities grow.”

Government Technology is Governing's sister e.Republic publication, offering in-depth coverage of IT case studies, emerging technologies and the implications of digital technology on the policies and management of public sector organizations.
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