Urban analytical: Data Driven Detroit gets creative about city's future

Raw data in the information age is the fuel of development. Data Driven Detroit (D3) mines it, refines it, and turns it into energy for use by anyone – often at no cost to the user.

D3 "democratizes" information, often cloistered in governmental bureaucracy, unintelligible statistical reporting from various agencies, or uncollected and under-analyzed data, inaccessible at a critical moment in the city and region's survival.

Kurt Metzger, a well-known authority on demographic research in Southeast Michigan, created D3, a unique model for information processing and analysis that is more than a market research company. Based in Grand Circus Park, D3's team of young researchers and analysts, with a passion for urban planning, create information to help solve community development problems. After nearly three years of operating with philanthropic support, D3 faces the challenge of turning this enterprise into an entrepreneurial entity, true to its goal of making information accessible and affordable, but also able to pay the bills.

Most data services like D3 are university-based, Metzger says. "Being an independent, or semi-nonprofit, is very unusual. When we started, I wanted to be separate because of the way this community works." University and organizational rivalries tend to polarize community service programs. By maintaining independence, Metzger avoids that. Established in 2008 through grants from the Skillman and Kresge foundations under City Connect, D3 is likely to move out on its own. But independence raises the question of sustainable revenue sources in an era of scarce grant funding. "Therein lies the question going forward," says Metzger. "How you do that in a business model? That's the whole question. Where does the money come from?"

D3's first major project -- actually collaboration with the Detroit Office of Foreclosure Prevention and Response and Community Legal Resources -- was the Detroit Residential Parcel Survey, which examined 343,000 parcels. Another early project was development of the One D Scorecard, a data-driven method of monitoring decision-making in Southeast Michigan, which grew into the Michigan Scorecard, in collaboration with the Center for Michigan. Through its collaboration with the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and Social Compact, D3 noted in its 2009 Detroit Drilldown report a surprising marketability of Detroit's neighborhoods: "In the face of the national recession, many of Detroit's neighborhoods are continuing to show strong market strength for retail and other economic investment."

While large projects draw attention, D3 excels in smaller, community-based interactions. Eleanore Eveleth, a community organizer and urban planner, works primarily with Community Development Associates of Detroit (CDAD) on assembling data to illustrate CDAD's strategic framework. "We collect (neighborhood) indicators to figure out which ones are appropriate to illustrate their typology. Then, after we put it together and analyze it, we have to figure out a way to communicate it, not only to CDAD but to all of their members." The communication capability is often missing in the presentations of other research analysts, she says.

Erica Raleigh works nearly full time on the Living Cities Integration Initiative in Midtown. The project's goal is to "redensify" the area through improved public safety, education, employment, and business development. "Our piece is the data system. How does data come together (and) talk to each other? How do we get data from multiple sources so we're communicating with several departments within the City of Detroit?" While her other colleagues remain focused on analytical aspects of the work, Raleigh, like Eveleth, spends a lot of time talking with community stakeholders.
Joshua Long, a research analyst, works on the Skillman Good Neighborhoods project "I take data and make it meaningful to them," he says. "A lot of people who work at D3 have two skills: there's the research and data side, but a lot of have urban planning and urban development background. Generally everyone who works here has training on how to make things accessible to people, make it understandable, to communicate with a large and diverse audience."
The ideal of "democratizing" information is a core principal of D3. "We publish a fair amount on our website and we're looking to publish a lot more," says Gregory Parrish, Data and Technical Manager. "There's a lot of census data that we publish that is more Detroit-based. Almost everyone wants something different or novel. That's when we have to charge them."

Parrish worked for the City of Detroit Planning and Development Department before joining D3. He knows from experience the frustrations of working with the bureaucratic environment. In large, changing environments like the City of Detroit, "data doesn't keep up," says Parrish. "What we find is that there are many points of departure between reality and administrative data. We even get more disjointed when it comes to federal government data, which tends to be at a different level and scale and doesn't reflect the organic things that are happening on the ground. There isn't a huge analytical powerhouse in city government, nor in county government, nor within many governments."

Answers are most likely to be found at the neighborhood level, which is consistent with the trend in other changing urban areas nationwide. D3 hosted a meeting of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership in mid-May. The Partnership espouses that "growth and improvement are driven not by governments acting alone, but by collaborations between public officials, nonprofits, and individuals who live and work in affected neighborhoods."

A study of client reaction to D3 currently under way is showing that D3 is a critical resource because it "has access to significantly more data, or has tools to procure data that others can't," according to Jim Pizzamente, principal of Colton Group Detroit, LLC, conducting the research. "Beyond that, they have the analytics capability to analyze the data to give it context for the planning work that's being done by these organizations. There's a significant amount of planning to be done in this region. No one source of analysis can handle all of it."

Metzger muses on the next phase of D3, one in which it assumes a more entrepreneurial structure. But he also intends to preserve the uniqueness of his operation. "There's a dedication to Detroit, a dedication to the work," he says. It's definitely not a "data shop," he adds. "This is a very creative operation. Statistics can be creative. We're attracting young people who have new ideas about how to use information to revitalize this city." For example, D3 recently hired a graphic artist to improve its ability to visualize data presentations. The work of D3, he says, is "not only for policymakers and the folks who are tech-savvy. How do we get the information to the community? How do you get community residents engaged? You can get them engaged around a spreadsheet."    

Parrish notes that this creativity comes through diversity of thought that can create tension. "In many respects, we are of one mind. But the mosaic of our thought process is different. We don't think the same thing the same way. We're very quantitative people. We want to see the way in which we can present this massive amount of data in a way that's intelligible and understandable by most people."

And to the person, the D3 staff knows how critical information is for Detroit: there's no longer any time or money to waste.

Dennis Archambault is a regular feature contributor to Model D.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni


Team Data Driven Detroit

Kurt Metzger

Erica Raleigh

Gregory Parrish

D3 map of Detroit neighborhoods
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.