Whenever people from back home ask me how things are going here in Boston and what I am up to, I almost always need to include that I am working a lot for school. Most of my weekdays are filled with reading articles and writing policy memos. The amount of work and the system of classes here is very different from what I am used to.
For starters, attendance is not mandatory in Leuven. It is completely your own choice if you show up for a class, and there are no consequences if you miss class to sleep in, for example. Most of our classes are lectures instead of seminars, so you basically just sit down, take notes and digest the information. Some professors ask you to read an article or a chapter and occasionally ask a question, but if you don’t answer, it won’t really affect your grade. Between lectures and exams, we have a gap of two to three weeks where you don’t have any classes. This period is when you can catch up on all of your schoolwork, if necessary. As you can see, the Belgian higher education system is very different from the American system.
At the beginning of my semester here, I really had to adapt to the amount of work you have to do before you enter a classroom. And then there was another issue: participation. When I heard that there were grades for participation, I lost all my courage. Not only is it difficult to express your thoughts and make a valid argument in a foreign language on topics about which you don’t know the specifics, but I am also not used to speaking up in class. When I saw how outspoken and confident my other classmates were, I felt really small. But since I knew I would fail the participation portion of my grade if I did not speak up, I slowly started to engage in class discussions.
I chose to write about this topic because of something that happened this weekend: I discovered the perks of your system. In order to get your participation grades, you have to push yourself to get out there and stand your grounds. You have to speak about policy issues to someone you don’t know, and by doing that, it is a lot easier to go up to folks and have a friendly conversation. In one of my courses, “Education Policy in the U.S.,” we often have to discuss the readings in different groups. By doing this in an informal manner, we have a lot of fun during class and I really enjoy my classmates’ company. In fact, we get along so well that last weekend I went to a bar with my fellow classmates. We had some drinks together and I had the best time.
So even though I sometimes still miss the Belgian higher education system where the workload is not as heavy as here, I am really glad the American system has forced me to open up, and it has given me so much in return.
Launched in 2011 at the Academic Ventures program of Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, BARI focuses on three major areas of activity: Pursuing core research-policy partnerships and projects; developing the Boston Data Portal; and convening and supporting Boston’s civic data ecosystem.
According to SPPUA Director Matthias Ruth, BARI and the School’s research centers and labs—the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, Resilient Cities Lab and the Social Impact Lab—will have important roles in generating insights and actionable strategies that solve pressing social, economic and environmental challenges in Boston and around the world.
“Aligning BARI’s research and convening functions more closely with the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs enables us all to more effectively leverage our collective intellectual resources and networks and to bring cutting edge data analytics to bear on issues of relevance to the region,” Ruth said. “The School’s degree and certificate programs in urban informatics and data analytics, for example, will offer the educational backbone for a new generation of analysts in the region.”
As part of the initiative’s transition to Northeastern, Assistant Professor Dan O’Brien became co-director of BARI along with Robert J. Sampson and Christopher Winship of the Department of Sociology at Harvard University.
Here, O’Brien delves into BARI’s ongoing research projects and focus on “inter-sectoral collaboration,” his goals for the initiative, and how the transition to Northeastern creates a synergy between BARI’s work and the work of other programs in the Policy School.
Q: What distinguishes BARI from other research centers and labs?
A: BARI has two distinguishing characteristics, one is the kind of projects we pursue, and the other is how we construct and pursue them. Towards the former, one of our main missions is to leverage modern digital data (what some might call ‘big’ data) and technology for urban research, policy and practice. While there are centers that focus on data, and others that focus on urban issues, we specialize on their intersection and the potential they create not only for advancing scholarship but also for broader public impacts.
The way we do this work is also distinctive. We believe that, because this area offers such a wide range of opportunities, it requires a broad interdisciplinary approach that welcomes collaboration across universities and sectors. For this reason, we partner closely with faculty and centers at six different local universities, including Northeastern, Harvard, Boston and Tufts Universities, UMass Boston, and Emerson College, and public officials at municipal, state and regional agencies.
Q: What projects at BARI currently excite you and why?
A: In the coming year there are three projects that I find particularly exciting. The first is a new NSF grant that BARI received this summer to continue building the infrastructure for our Boston Data Portal and the data-sharing relationships around it. This project will further the types of data that we host, including the expansion into various types of social media data. It will also make it possible for us to receive data from partners in real-time. Versions of many datasets will be made publicly available for use by other researchers, university courses, policymakers, and community members.
The second is a project led by professor Ryan Qi Wang, a new arrival in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northeastern University and BARI’s associate director of research in social media. Professor Wang has been using geo-tagged Twitter data to examine patterns of mobility in the city surrounding race and class. Going beyond residential segregation, he has been generating some striking examples of differences regarding which parts of the city people of different races visit.
Last is an effort around ‘Problem Properties.’ Historically, urban science has focused on neighborhood-level patterns, but novel digital data has the precision to allow us to study smaller units of analysis, and to wonder what are the dynamics of individual buildings. The potential questions are diverse, from questions of concentrations of crime or medical emergencies, to localized trends in gentrification.
Q: How will BARI translate its research efforts to policymakers and the community?
A: Nearly every BARI project brings together researchers, policymakers and practitioners around topics of common interest. This focus on inter-sectoral collaboration means that all new discoveries have the potential to be translated into innovations in policy and practice. We also stimulate such conversations through workshops, panels and other events. By publishing our data on the Boston Data Portal, especially the interactive BostonMap, we make the data available for policymakers, practitioners and community organizations to better understand and advocate for their communities.
Q: What are your goals for BARI now that its administrative home is SPPUA? And how will day-to-day operations change?
A: SPPUA is the ideal place for BARI to grow and thrive in the coming years. There is much synergy between our work and the work of other programs in the School—the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy and the new masters and certificate programs in urban informatics are two examples of efforts that provide natural opportunities for collaboration and education, respectively. More generally, Northeastern University’s dedication to innovation fits perfectly with BARI’s mission to probe the frontiers of urban science and policy in the digital age.
Q: You mentioned the synergy between BARI’s work and the work of other programs in the School. What do you see as the role BARI will play in the M.S. in Urban Informatics and the Graduate Certificates in Data Analytics and Urban Informatics?
A: BARI provides a natural opportunity for students in the urban informatics and data analytics programs to participate in data projects that have the potential to contribute to both research and policy. Already, students in these programs are learning from datasets stored in the Boston Data Portal, and in the coming semesters we will be identifying data-oriented capstone projects that involve partnering with local agencies and nonprofits with data-related problems. There are also opportunities for students to work directly with BARI on the construction of the Data Portal and the pursuit of original research, or by participating or volunteering at our events.
Become involved: Are you a faculty member with urban-research policy projects or ideas you’d like to pursue? Are you a student who would like to participate in ongoing research projects at BARI? Contact Assistant Professor Dan O’Brien at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 617-373-8900.
“Bridges and Barriers: A Survey of Massachusetts College Access & Success Programs” delves into the challenges facing under-represented students in Massachusetts, and provides recommendations for addressing this critical issue.
Funded through a federal grant from the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, the survey will be officially released on Wednesday, Oct. 19. Mann will attend the event, which will be held from 8:30 to 10:15 a.m. at Wheelock College’s Brookline Campus.]]>
Miller, a second-year student in the M.S. in Urban Informatics, is conducting a fire risk assessment of Boston using public data from the city. He is digging into the Tax Assessor’s database, Boston Fire Department records of blazes from 2011 to 2015, and datasets based on non-emergency (311) and emergency (911) calls developed by Dan O’Brien, co-director of the Boston Area Research Initiative. Using the 911 records, O’Brien calculated a “medical emergency” score for individual addresses by taking the number of medical emergencies reported in one year from an address and adjusting it for other factors.
“The literature on fire risk assessment of properties has tended to focus on a very micro level; for example, an engineering assessment of materials and building design,” Miller said. “On the other end, there has been research on demographic variables and census data that correlate with higher rates of fires in geographic areas like census tracts. My research uses a multi-level approach to look at risk both at the building type and census tract levels to get an overall picture of risk factors at different levels.”
According to Miller, what distinguishes his research from other literature on predicting fires is the use of 911 and 311 data to assess risk of buildings going up in flames by address. He has found that 911 reports of medical emergencies at an address in one year correspond to a higher risk of fire at that same address the following year.
“Using a statistical approach called multi-level modeling, I found that the odds of a fire occurring at a given address in 2012 and 2013 increase significantly for addresses with higher medical scores in 2011 and 2012,” Miller explained. “This is after accounting for differences in the number of residential units at an address and median household income. I’m still hoping to get the medical scores from 2013 to see if the relationship holds up over three straight years.”
The research, he said, could be beneficial to Boston and other cities in determining patterns of elevated fire risk using public data. But it was Miller’s genuine interest in cities, statistics and GIS that sparked his curiosity to use data to better understand how cities work.
“In my career as a software developer, I have done a lot of work that is technically challenging and intellectually stimulating, but I have never felt like the work was very meaningful in the world beyond whatever company I’ve worked for. The Urban Informatics Program offered me a path toward a new career that could be both intellectually challenging and meaningful for me.”
— Kit Miller
Miller’s ultimate goal, he said, is to continue doing applied research in an academic, municipal government or nonprofit setting.
Hi! As my biography states, my name is Karel and I’m an international student from Belgium! Northeastern has asked me and Ann-Sophie to start writing a blog about our stay in the United States of America, so here I am!
This blog will consist off my general experiences during this semester, like what my school week looks like, what my thoughts are on several aspects of American society and how I have perceived them thus far. But to start us off, I should tell you a little more about myself!
I was raised in a small town on the border with France and the French-speaking part of Belgium. (For the people who are unaware of the majestic situation in Belgium, the country consists of three different language-areas: French, Dutch and German). I was raised speaking Dutch, but as the other two languages are state languages, I had to learn French and German. I spent my teenage years playing basketball, going to school and engaging with youth movements.
Through the years, I have developed a keen interest in history and politics, especially International and American politics. This was one of the main motivators to join the program here at Northeastern. I’m in the Master of Public Policy Program at the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. My main goals of for my stay here is to give an international character to my existence, learn more about the internal systems of the U.S., and quite frankly, enjoy myself a little!
By Ann-Sophie Vermeersch
As you can read in my bio, I am an exchange student from Belgium. The purpose of my blog is thus to point out how the Bostonian student life is perceived by an outsider. I will talk about habits I have learned, things I find remarkable and things I miss, impressions that stay with me, and experiences that surprise me.
As I will be sharing my thoughts with you on the many different issues I’ll encounter during my stay at Northeastern the next two months, I think it might be useful for you to know what I am up to during the week. That’s why this introductory post is about a week in my Bostonian life.
On Monday I usually do my groceries. Since I live in an Airbnb near JFK/UMass, I go to Star Market for my supplies. I can’t cook, so most of my groceries are prefab meals and Nutella—a girl’s gotta have her chocolate. Monday, just as Thursday, is my yoga day. I have subscribed to yoga classes at Northeastern for two reasons: 1) I wanted to get to know some students outside my classes, and 2) my rather unhealthy lifestyle (see the part about how my diet consists of prefab meals and Nutella). I also think it is a fun way to stay in shape. I will certainly spend some time explaining to you how the Belgian students eat and do sports (spoiler: it is quite different than what you guys are used to).
Tuesday, I have class in the evening with professor Fitzgerald about climate change, cities and sustainability. Wednesday, I have another evening class with professor Deninger, a course on educational policy. My third class, “Security and Resilience Policy” with professor Flynn is a hybrid class, so most of it is online.
My days during the week are mainly filled with reading articles, preparing courses and writing papers. I will definitely write a blog on how the American education system differs from the Belgian system and how I am experiencing this.
Saturday is my “day off.” I try to be a tourist and explore different parts of the city. I have seen a few interesting places both in and out of Boston, and I look forward to telling you about them. Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest, but that is not the case in my agenda. I skype with my boyfriend, my family and my friends, so that means I am busy repeating the same stories and week reports for most of the day. In between skyping, I finish my schoolwork and plan for the following week.
Now, you know what I am up to most of the time and what will be the main part of my inspiration for this blog!
Every year AIIS awards fellowships through a very competitive process to doctoral candidates in the U.S. who are pursuing their dissertation research in India. AIIS fellows are provided formal affiliation with Indian universities and supervisors during their field work in India, as well as a monthly stipend to help them cover field expenses.
Singh’s research aims to explain the impacts of local opposition on the viability of large-scale energy projects in India, particularly those that are accompanied by coal mining and large-scale displacement of local people. She is using a multi-method case study approach to provide useful insights on the relationships between national and state governments, project developers, and project affected people in the design and implementation of large-scale energy projects.
The state of the art aspect of her topic of research provides useful insight into various forms of local resistance and policy gaps that might be contributing to the slowing down of large projects. However, according to Singh, studies do not provide enough information about how local context and persisting patterns of caste and class shape the nature of struggles around land acquisitions in India.
“My research will fill this gap by providing the data needed to develop a theoretical framework that can help understand barriers to implementing energy megaprojects, by emphasizing the character of local resistance from the affected populations; planning and execution shortcomings and limitations of the government; and implementation challenges of the developers,” said Singh, who joined the PhD in Law and Public Policy Program in 2013.
In 2015, Markus, who was then a student in the Research Master’s in Urban Studies at the University of Amsterdam, hopped on a plane and enrolled in professor Joan Fitzgerald’s “Cities, Sustainability and Climate Change” class. He began scrutinizing practices of green building and water management in planning, and his research became the basis of an article published last month in Planning Theory and Practice.
“When it comes to urban policy it is important to be able to ground knowledge in a real urban context,” Markus said. “SPPUA is critical on teaching existing practices, but also tries to understand the dilemmas practitioners face, and how to further urban issues in practice. This part is strongly reflected in my article.”
In “The implementation deficits of adaptation and mitigation: green buildings and water security in Amsterdam and Boston,” Markus and co-author Federico Savini distinguish how city governments deal with the tension between control and flexibility in the implementation of urban climate change goals.
“As a city, Boston has high sustainability ambitions,” Markus said. “I was curious how the city approaches implementation and how professionals deal with different obstacles in formulating policy, measures and rules.”
According to Markus, Fitzgerald’s class was one of the reasons why he signed up for the exchange program at SPPUA. During his time at SPPUA, he said he met engaged students and scholars who are passionate about their fields.
Now, Markus is working on furthering sustainable housing development at AM, a large real estate developer in the Netherlands. He said he became interested in sustainable urban development because there is an abundant knowledge on how to create more green urban environments, but implementation seems limited or slow.]]>
In her role, Costello, who graduated with a focus on urban policy, design and economic development, works with institutions and agencies to collect data for research and evaluation. She provides support and management to special projects focusing on youth employment and development. She also develops recommendations on policy and programs for special projects, and provides guidance and support for grant development, submission, and management.
During her time at Northeastern, Costello worked as a research assistant at the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, and she spent one semester in the Netherlands where she participated in SPPUA’s exchange program with the Universiteit van Amsterdam. (Read her blog to learn more about her studies, adventures and what drives her intellectually.)
“The courses I took as part of the MURP program prepared me for the policy practitioner end of my position, and my time as a researcher at the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy helped me to build out a more robust research-based skill set. Still much more to come, but I’m thankful to be at the beginning of a new chapter in my career!”
Visit Costello’s website to learn more about her work. Follow @LaurenCost on Twitter.]]>
BoCo Strong, formed after the 2013 Lyons, Colo., floods, seeks to preserve the lessons learned from that broad scale disaster. The group has been using Aldrich’s research on social capital as a blueprint for building cohesion and civic engagement in their communities and asked him to talk about the empirical evidence and resulting policy recommendations from his research around the world.
Aldrich spoke about data from Hurricane Katrina, the 3/11 disasters in Japan, and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
By Caitlin Fitz Gerald
I recently attended “The future of justice: data science and journalism combine,” a hackathon co-hosted by Northeastern University. In my second year of the M.S. in Urban Informatics at the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, this intersection of data and policy was a fun look at some of the real-world applications of the skills I’m gaining through my coursework.
If you look up the word “hackathon,” Google will tell you that it is “an event, typically lasting several days, in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming.” The Sept. 29 event at the Curry Student Center—part of HUBweek, a citywide, weeklong menu of panels, demonstrations, collaborations, celebrations, and other events focused on the future of Boston—was a less intensive version focused on the intersection of data science and journalism, suitable for neophytes and experienced programmers alike.
Data, computer power and skill
The event kicked off with a keynote conversation in which Forbes Magazine editor Randall Lane interviewed WorldQuant CEO and pioneer of quantitative financial market analysis Igor Tulchinsky. I won’t pretend to have much knowledge of finance, but the talk served to introduce some key themes for the evening: the tremendous explosion in the amount and kind of data available to us, the computing power that allows us to process that data, and the ingenuity required to know what to do with it and how to communicate it more broadly. “No data is useless,” Tulchinsky said, highlighting that with enough ingenuity, you can get at least a little useful information out of anything.
Following that conversation, Todd Wallack, data journalism specialist for the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team, discussed the changing role of data in journalism from a landscape where data was rarely presented up-front in the news and most administrative data was inaccessible or extremely difficult to access. Many readers, however, expect to see the data behind the stories they read, so governments are starting to grant easier access to at least some types of administrative data, even posting some datasets on public web portals. Nonetheless, he pointed out that other types of data, such as court data and data from prosecutors’ offices remain difficult to access.
Data journalism as a specialty has continued to grow, even while journalism as a field has continued to shrink, and journalists who work with data are more and more likely to have facility with not only Excel, but Python, R, and other programming languages.
Professor Dan O’Brien, an evolutionary biologist turned urban data scientist who teaches at the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, discussed the use of data in urban policy research. O’Brien, who serves as co-director of the Boston Area Research Initiative, described the field of urban informatics, where new (or newly accessible) data sources are being used for research and collaboration between universities, governments, and the private sector to address modern urban policy issues.
The final panelist, professor Michelle Borkin of Northeastern’s College of Computer and Information Science, defined information visualization as “the static or interactive representation of abstract or spatial data to reinforce human cognition.” Borkin, an astrophysicist with extensive work in medical imaging who specializes in information visualization, discussed the challenges of trying to make sense of the enormous amount of data in the world—90 percent of which has been generated just in the last two years and is still growing by a staggering 2.5 million terabytes a day.
The sheer size and complexity of the data being generated present a challenge, as does the question of how to keep humans in the loop when most data are being generated through automated algorithms of one kind or another.
Having been thus introduced to the themes of the night, attendees were invited to split into groups to tackle any of three datasets: Crime Incident Reports from the Boston Police Department (BPD); the BPD’s Field Interrogation and Observation data (FIO, more commonly known as stop-and-frisk), recently released following an ACLU public records request; and Boston homicide data. These were supplemented by some census and other data from the BARI website, to allow groups the opportunity to compare the datasets against more general population information.
The group with which I worked included two people with no programming experience, one a finance professional and the other a graphic designer; two experienced programmers, one working with healthcare data and the other with criminal justice data; and me, falling somewhere in between as a relative newcomer to the programming world with a year of R under my belt. The groups reporting back at the end of the evening included journalists, students of various levels, data scientists, and interested parties from a number of fields.
With only about two hours to work, this was not a traditional hackathon where by the end groups might have built an app or other kind of software product, but more of a brainstorming activity with some light programming to start looking at the information in the datasets: What can we learn from this data? What questions might we want to ask of it? What might the uses be? Who is the audience for the results?
In the end, three groups were awarded prizes by the panel of judges, and they represented a good cross-section of participants with a journalism team, a pair of Northeastern freshmen, and a data scientist all taking home prizes for their sound use of statistics, novel findings, and some illustrative visualizations.
The grand-prize-winning team, using the FIO data, showed that black men are 22 times more likely to be stopped and frisked than white women, while a mere eight supervisors oversee the officers responsible for a large majority of stop-and-frisks. The group also noted that the distribution of stop-and-frisks by officer follows a power law, a statistical term describing a functional relationship where one quantity varies as a power of another. They were able to show that a small number of officers were responsible for a large proportion of all stop-and-frisks covered in the dataset.
While producing a few interesting findings, the hackathon also served to illustrate some important things to remember when using data: a sound understanding and proper use of statistics are crucial, and information cannot be divorced from context. If 51 percent of all stop-and-frisk targets were wearing jeans, does that mean people who wear jeans are much more likely to be subject to a stop-and-frisk than those who aren’t? Or does it perhaps mean that a lot of people generally wear jeans? Without information about what the population in general is wearing, including those not targeted for stop-and-frisk, that information doesn’t tell us much.
As a student of urban informatics, it was fun getting to play around with a dataset and to practice skills I’ve learned so far on some new data. I spent much of the actual hackathon off on my own tangent looking at motor vehicle accidents by location in the Crime Incident Report dataset, and it was exciting to see some examples of the different applications of this work, and the potential for collaboration.
Caitlin Fitz Gerald is a second-year student in the Master of Science in Urban Informatics. She holds a M.A. in International Relations and works in research and data management at Northeastern’s School of Law. Fitz Gerald has a background as a writer on foreign policy and national security, and is currently creating an illustrated children’s version of Carl von Clausewitz’s On War.