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SXSW: How Cities (Like Fort Worth) Can Use Google Street View To Measure Change

by Alan Melson 9 Mar 2019 3:47 PM

This widely-available tool – and its ability to show the evolution of a city block – has potential to be a powerful source of data.


Art&Seek returns to Austin this year for the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference, and KERA’s Alan Melson is part of the team sharing dispatches from the annual interactive, film and music gathering. We’ll collect all our SXSW coverage here.

“ … there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.”

– Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961

If you follow the development cycles of cities – or even just participate in your local neighborhood association – you know how important the “eyes on the street” concept can be.  For years, neighbors watched out for neighbors on a granular level.  In many places, that connectivity has diminished in recent years, sometimes replaced with the overzealous sense of watchdoggery embodied by NextDoor.

But for urban planners and future-attuned civic leaders, this concept of knowing subtle changes in a neighborhood – and how they accumulate over time – has taken on new importance.  Those eyes can tell a lot more than a policymaker or planner could ever know as they try to predict what services to provide, or changes to make, in a city.

A new effort to track street-level changes is using a widely-available tool to gather information: Google Street View.  Taking the time to view online maps and click on specific areas or blocks to trigger 360-degree views – and then compare those views to snapshots taken in previous years – can teach a lot about year-over-year changes to a street, without requiring the user to actually visit in person.  This effort was showcased at a SXSW 2019 session featuring the co-author of a major study on the subject, as well as a Fort Worth civic leader who is putting these ideas into action at the local level.

Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economics professor and senior fellow at the free-market think tank the Manhattan Institute, has been a vocal proponent of this effort.  In collaboration with Harvard colleague Duke Kominers and MIT’s Nikhil Naik, César A. Hidalgo and Ramesh Raskar, he authored a 2017 study that used artificial intelligence to examine millions of Google Street View images and quantify them to track changes.

In the SXSW session about his research, Glaeser said he and his co-authors were able to algorithmically scale up the sample of data, then used it to create PlacePulse, a web interface to compare relative safety levels across major world cities.  He stressed that this effort is focused on making cities more livable – and helping governments better serve their citizens.

“The point of this is not the technology, although it’s fun,” Glaeser said.  “The point is creating great urban spaces – and they’re only great when they facilitate human interaction.”

Fort Worth City Council member Ann Zadeh is an urban planner and thirty-year city resident who started her civic career as a leader in her historic Bluebonnet Hills neighborhood, then as a zoning commissioner, before being elected to council in 2014.  She uses Street View to see how her district is changing – and to help foster deeper engagement with her constituents.

“My use of Google Street View started when I was on the zoning commission,” Zadeh said.  “I used it to look at cases when I couldn’t make it out to every single one in person.”

Zadeh said she talks regularly with city planners, who still largely rely on census data – which, while generally accurate, dates quickly in the decade between each collection.  She has encouraged the city to find additional ways to collect data about neighborhoods to track incremental change, particularly about gentrification in areas close to the city’s urban core.

“As an elected official, this kind of data helps me say to people, ‘I understand the curb in front of your house is a little cracked, and that’s not aesthetically pleasing, but there are actual streets in Fort Worth that don’t have a curb or a gutter,’” she said.

Glaeser cited several key takeaways that came out of all the adjacent research to their Google Street View study:

  • Population density and college education have proven to be strong predictors of future growth in neighborhoods. The higher the level of education – and the greater the mix of density levels in an area – the more likely it is to flourish.
  • Neighborhoods are more likely to improve when they are close to a city’s downtown or central business district, and when they’re in close proximity to other areas perceived as safe.
  • Conversely, however, kids who grow up in denser metropolitan areas – particularly those close to downtown areas – often do worse in school by substantial margins. For decades, this has meant many parents feel they need to leave those urban neighborhoods to gain a brighter future for their kids.
  • There are other potential applications for use of this technology, such as using Google Street View and AI to determine property appraisals, in connection with many other pieces of neighborhood data.  He said tests of appraisals done this way showed they maintain a high degree of accuracy compared to in-person human appraisals, and reduce the likelihood of corrupt appraisers or other disruptive influences.

Glaeser said continued focus on mixed-income development – and spreading out Section 8 housing vouchers into neighborhoods with more upward mobility and the infrastructure to support stronger schools – can help reverse the family exodus from urban cores.

Zadeh said educating her constituents about the need for greater income diversity and opportunity remains a priority.

“Everyone says they’re for affordable housing, but then when you want to put it in a specific place, people say, ‘I’m for it, but not right there,’” she said.  “We need to inform people better so they understand that it’s not the old ‘housing projects’ idea they may have in their head. … Our goal is to make our city more equitable for everyone who lives there.”

Glaeser said he is pleased to see Google, who was not a part of this study in terms of direct cooperation, continue to expand Street View to more of the developing world.  He hopes use of the tool will also empower individual residents to learn more about how their own neighborhoods are changing – and what they can do to make it happen in positive ways.

“All of us have the capacity to affect local change,” he said.  “A city is not its structures – it’s the people that live and work in them.”