Austin, Texas, is using big data to predict the effect proposed developments are likely to have on the city’s economy. Using local data on rents, wages, taxes, etc., the city’s ‘Envision Tomorrow’ software can assess whether new developments will help or harm the local economy before they are built. Planners used this tool to design the route for the city’s urban railway in 2014, connecting undeveloped areas which the model predicted would grow over the next few decades. Voters were sceptical and the proposal failed when submitted to the public, but the planners have since been proved right: areas have begun to show the growth they predicted. Now the city is using the tool to stop gentrification overwhelming its iconic live music districts.
Results & Impact
The districts which the Envision Tomorrow software predicted would grow in the long term when planning its public railway have already begun to show growth. In 2015, a survey of Austin's musicians showed that someone earning minimum wage in Austin has to work 88 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment. 32% of Austin musicians earn less than the minimum wage. City planners are using the software to stop them being priced out by new developments.
City of Austin Economic Development Department, Envision Tomorrow
Envision Tomorrow collects publically available economic data from across Austin, such as tax receipts, census data on wages, and rent levels, to build an economic data map for the city. Using this, city planners can draw plans for new developments onto the map, and immediately receive information on what impact the proposed builds will have on the city’s economy, services and environment. From 2011-2014 Austin’s Economic Development Department (EDD) used the software to assess the likely impact of the new railway, and it is now used by the EDD on the Soul-y Austin project, which helps preserve traditional music districts of the city by measuring the potential impact of excessive business development on the music scene.
Austin, Texas, US
Cost & Value
Austin received a grant of $3.7 million from the federal government. Some of this was spent on software development, but also on staff training, planning meetings, and demonstrations of the software.
In progress since 2011
The technology is complex and requires training to use. There are not enough trained staff in the city’s department to use it on a day-to-day basis. Even with training, the complexity of the algorithms which manipulate the city’s data make it difficult for planners to properly assess exactly how different factors are weighted when the prediction is made. This complexity makes it difficult to sell the predictions to the public – voters in 2014 ultimately thought the railway should be directed through areas which were already booming.
Despite the public rejection of the proposed public railway, many departments in Austin’s metropolitan government now use Envision Tomorrow to inform their planning and decision making.
City planners in Austin, Texas, used big data to correctly predict where gentrification would occur – but the public rejected plans for a new railway made on that basis.
From 2011-2014 Austin used software to predict which underdeveloped areas would see growth over the next few decades, and made plans to build a public railway through them. Voters were sceptical about the predictions and rejected the scheme but the software has since been proved right.
Envision Tomorrow, the city’s scenario planning tool, amalgamates open source data on local economic and environmental conditions, such as tax receipts, census data on wages, and rent levels. Planners can then plot new developments onto a virtual map and immediately receive information on how the development will affect the local economy. The tool has already been used by Austin’s Economic Development Department (EDD) to draw up plans for a public urban railway and is now being used to protect iconic neighbourhoods from gentrification.
“You’re making decisions about development, the very complex, multi-faceted relationships that occur,” said Greg Kiloh, Redevelopment Project Manager at the EDD, who helped adapt the Envision Tomorrow technology to the city. “You can build various scenarios of scale or type of development and it will give you indicators – some economic, some environmental, some transportation related… that help you make decisions about what direction you want to go, as you grow.”
Envision Tomorrow pulls together publicly available Geographic Information System (GIS) data from across Austin to show existing economic conditions. Using this backdrop, planners can then paint prototype buildings onto a map of the city to understand the effect the building will have on the economy.
The EDD is currently using the tool as part of the Soul-y Austin project, which protects Austin’s famous live music districts from over-development or gentrification. Using Envision Tomorrow, the EDD is able to coordinate with business leaders and developers and assess the likely economic impact of their proposed developments on the city’s economy.
“For an economic development department, we don’t have the problem that a lot of places have where we’re having to create growth but that we’re trying to create growth in certain areas,” said Kiloh. “It’s almost that we have a situation where some of these corridors are being threatened by growth. So it’s a question of understanding what those threats are, to understand what mechanisms might be put in place to keep them.
“One of our corridors is downtown, and it’s the core of our live music industry where a lot of the clubs are, and we call ourselves the live music capital of the world. Yet on this street of clubs, the rents are going up and there’s a lot of hotels being built around them, and you get noise complaints. So there are a lot of thorny issues around maintaining the viability of these streets of live music in a high growth environment.”
In 2015, a survey of Austin’s musicians showed that someone earning minimum wage in Austin has to work 88 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment. 32% of Austin musicians earn less than the minimum wage.
The technology allows the EDD to plan better, and to work with developers to make sure their projects don’t damage these iconic areas. “Understanding the economics helps to come up with programs that can maybe keep it viable in its current use as opposed to its alternate use in a free market.”
Austin received a $3.7 million grant in 2011 from the federal government to develop a planning tool for the whole metropolitan area. At that point Envision Tomorrow, developed by the company Fregonese Associates, was a regional, rather than an urban planning tool. The EDD enhanced the software, adapting it to the metropolitan level, and adding a service suite of tools which would allow public servants across the metropolitan government to use it for planning.
The new tool was first used to analyse the economic impact of a proposed urban rail line running through Austin. Kiloh and other planners examined a number of alternative scenarios, routing the railway through different paths, or corridors, of the city, to see where it would have the greatest economic impact. The corridor chosen went through a number of underdeveloped areas which the model predicted would see development in the coming years.
This culminated in a public bond election in 2014, which would decide whether the railway would go ahead, or not. 57% of voters voted against the scheme, and the plan wasn’t implemented. Commenting on the vote, Kiloh said that “people who were pro-transit, they decided that it was not the best alignment, which is ironic because we did all this modelling to help show what the future development potential was.”
The model predicted that underdeveloped areas the railway went through would see growth over the coming years, while voters favoured areas which were already booming.
“We were forecasting pretty high development in certain areas that hadn’t seen it that much in the past,” said Kiloh.
The software isn’t straightforward to use, and staff across the metropolitan government require training to get the most out of it. Even then, there aren’t enough trained staff for departments to use the tool as part of their day-to-day operations, but instead on specific projects.
“Because it’s complex, even though it’s open-source and you can see what the numbers are, it tends to be a bit of a black box anyway,” said Kiloh. “I really found that the only way that you can truly become familiar with it is by doing a project, there you learn the ins and outs of it.”
Despite these difficulties, and the failure of the bond election for the railway, the forecasts which Envision Tomorrow provided have made their own argument for its effectiveness:
“It’s only been a few short years, (but) we’ve seen significant development in those areas that we were forecasting based on our knowledge… So it’s too early to say we told you so, but there’s still a little bit of that. That growth you were sceptical was going to happen is happening.”
(Picture Credit: Flickr/Andy)