Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Age of Error

By Evan D. Robertson, Senior Project Associate

I was on a beach somewhere in Key West when a question hit me, could the massive amount of information at our disposal lead to poor decision-making? Admittedly, the question was far from epiphany. I’d just finished reading a National Public Radio blog titled Truth Seeking in the Age of Speculation. The article focused on the dangers of crowd-sourcing, pointing to one example where a group of Reddit Users who mistakenly linked an innocent suspect with the Boston Marathon bombing last April. The mistake, and ensuing firestorm of negativity, resulted in a tragic consequence. Our bent towards crowdsourcing explanation (i.e. allowing a large group to sift through reams upon reams of data, in the case of the Boston Bombing, photos) is indicative of an age that generates so much information that no one person can possibly sort through it all in an intelligible manner. Combine with all the various other data we are bombarded with, it’s difficult to make a correct call or draw an empirical conclusion – especially with very little time to interrupt what the data is actually saying.

As someone who is used to dealing with data on a daily basis, I know how tough it is to intelligently discern trends and make a decision (right or wrong) on the multitudes of inputs that we get bombarded with every day. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with data. Fitness tracking, daily retirement savings reports, current events, and emerging technology trends can lead to a sort of inaction, or at least subpar decision-making. Case in point: Many of the Wall Street executives portrayed in Michael Lewis’s new book on high frequency trading, Flash Boys, had little working knowledge of how their proprietary trading, dark pools, and high frequency trading operations worked, let alone how they related to one another. Without ruining the book, it took one proactive insider to unravel the new high speed trading market and understand how it impacted market stability and investment tactics. Simply put, technology is rapidly evolving and with each innovation comes mounds of data and unforeseen repercussions. Wall Street’s top executives couldn’t (or refused to) understand how their high speed trading operations actually functioned because, in part, it differed so drastically from what the market had been up until that point. They aren’t uneducated folks: it simply highlights how complexity and big data can co-mingle creating a seemingly unintelligible system.

Taking an objective look at the sheer volume of data coming our way, it’s not difficult to see why crowd sourced investigations or explanations from the internet lead to poor, and sometimes unusual, theories. Without the tools to process, interpret, and diagnose, the Era of Big Data could devolve into an Age of Error – an era where more data doesn’t translate into better decision-making.

There are a number of tools that can more easily display and reduce data down into its important component parts. From visualization software to web design, folks are attempting to relay data in an intelligible format.

Infographics: An infographic is a visual representation of information, data, or knowledge. Infographics are intended to communicate complex information in a quick, easy to understand design (generally with the layperson in mind). While visualization tools have proliferated, my favorite (and approachable) tool is the five infographic templates provided by Hubspot. These templates allow you to create infographics within PowerPoint (and who doesn’t know PowerPoint) while guiding you on the ins and outs of simple, yet effective infographic techniques. Infographics can be a powerful tool to fulfill a variety of roles ranging from community information campaigns to investor relations. The Greater Des Moines Partnership’s 2013 annual report and Capital Crossroads’ first year benchmark report are great case studies for economic development professionals seeking to effectively leverage infographics in their community.

Visualization Software: Visualization tools graphically display data in an approachable format. The most common, and usually the go-to, visualization tool is Microsoft Excel. And, have no doubt, Microsoft Excel is a powerful visualization tool. Conditional formatting alone can transform a hard to read table into a quickly taken in visual. Other visualization tools are emerging, offering even greater data flexibility. Tableau offers many of the same visual tools as Excel with a few important caveats: Tableau is built with the website in mind (charts and tables posted to the web are interactive) and the program is highly flexible (you can simply drag and drop data sets into the software program). If you can’t afford Microsoft Excel or Tableau, there are a few free tools that may be of interest. Many Eyes (an IBM program), Google Fusion, Raw, and Gephi are just a few of the free visualization tools that provide sufficient, albeit limited, visualization capability.

Web Design: Finally, I’ve been absolutely impressed by the increasing use of data visualization incorporated into individual websites. The New York Times created a beautifully interactive website highlighting the changes to New York during the Bloomberg’s time as mayor. More recently, the Pew Research Center produced an accessible and interactive website dedicated to the nation’s evolving demographic changes. Both websites tell a story using data, displaying it in an engagingly interactive layout. While both organizations certainly have the resources to produce magnificent websites, it does offer ideas for integrating data and visual tools to an economic development organization’s website. Such tools can better tell the community’s story as well as highlight important economic trends (small caveat: make sure the user can download the information to a spreadsheet).

Much of our work at Market Street entails boiling down volumes upon volumes of data into its essential parts, creating a coherent story about where a community has been and where it is going. Data visualization, whether informing stakeholders about implementation successes or communicating local strengths to a site selector, is another tool at a community’s disposal. These visualizations condense complex information about your community in a format conducive to forming key takeaways. Simplicity and plain speech are the only wards against an Age of Error.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ecotourism: Part Two

By Alexia Eanes, Operations Manager

A couple months ago I wrote a blog focusing on ecotourism abroad and how it can ultimately distinguish your community amongst the rest. As promised, I’ll elaborate more about the pros and cons relating to practicing ecotourism and what this means for tourism in your community.

First off, what is ecotourism? There are many interpretations but the best one that I think represents the practice is from The International Ecotourism Society (TIES). TIES defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” Naturally, this type of tourism is vying for minimal impact on the environment, as well as the opportunity to gain cultural and environmental awareness while providing a positive economic impact on the region. In the most basic sense of the term, visiting a national park for a day is a form of ecotourism. Digging a little deeper, I’ve highlighted a two pros and one con typical of ecotourism.

Benefit: Preserving the environment while reaping the financial reward

While people usually think of lush forests and cascading waterfalls in foreign destinations such as Costa Rica, Belize, Madagascar, etc., the practice is not only dominate abroad. Ecotourism is heavily practiced in the United States with communities leveraging their natural resources where available. Places like Alaska, California, and Oregon all have practices in place to preserve their natural surroundings. Destinations such as The Great Smokey Mountains to Denali National Park in Alaska to the Florida Everglades have sustainable tourism practices in place which ultimately preserve their natural assets. These communities understand that their natural resources are special with distinct surroundings that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. Even Chambers of Commerce are getting in on the action and partnering with local vendors to promote ecotourism in their community. A great example is this program by Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber of Commerce and Visitors’ Bureau in San Mateo County, California. Enjoying Half Moon Bay’s natural features and spending money with local vendors keeps revenue local and helps maintain its environment, it’s a win-win.

Benefit: Job creation

While creating an ecotourism hot-spot is no easy feat, once it’s established, job creation will naturally follow. Local efforts to maintain, manage, and leverage natural resources will create jobs locally which is great for the surrounding community. Since ecotourism can also bring people to the area, many other tourism-related businesses will also benefit. While there’s no exact record of total ecotourism employment within the United States, approximately ten percent of jobs nationally are categorized in the leisure and hospitality sector. The change toward eco-conscious travel has been gaining popularity since 1980 with an increase in notoriety within the last 20 years. With awareness spreading across the national about preservation of natural resources, the “greening” of jobs is bound to continue.

Disadvantage: Mismanagement

When jumping on the ecotourism wagon you have to be careful not to fail when it comes to conservation. Without proper precautionary measures, the ecotourism can quickly spiral into something that wasn’t meant to be. The most common disadvantage is the degradation on the natural asset caused by everyday tourism. This degradation can range anywhere from increased pollution caused by vehicle traffic to disturbing natural habitat in the area. Even day-to-day tourist activities such as hand washing can weigh heavily on the environment. All of this can lead to an eventual environmental decline which in the end defeats its ultimate purpose. The disappearance of the Monarch butterfly in Mexico is a known case of ecotourism disturbing natural habitat along with a number of other factors.

With effective leadership ecotourism can lead to economic prosperity. Through marketing your community as an untouched, preserved, and unique destination unlike any other, your community can build national brand awareness - one that may not have been evident before. Of course, in the ecotourism world, successfully balancing economic growth and environmental quality is paramount.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Housing First, Saving Taxpayer Money Second

By Katie Bass, Project Associate.

There has always been a debate regarding how to best solve homelessness and it’s an issue for which I care deeply. Recently, there was a police shooting in my hometown, Albuquerque, of a homeless man, James Boyd, 38. It was a tragedy and one that in my opinion could, and should, have been avoided for many reasons. The shooting is currently being investigated. The man had a long history of mental health issues and had been approached by officers for illegally camping in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. This tragedy, and those like it, are preventable.

There are several different methods communities take in addressing their homeless population. Some cities have taken the approach of providing the homeless with one-way tickets home in an effort to reduce the financial burden from providing food, shelter, and medical treatment. This method is somewhat controversial, as some of these programs ensure that the homeless person is being sent home to family that has accepted to take them in, while others have been accused of merely shipping the burden onto another city. These tactics are designed to simply manage the issue and reduce costs, rather than solving the problem by providing a sustainable, cost-effective plan.

The “Housing first” approach is one such method. 100,000 Homes Campaign is a national movement to use the housing first model to find permanent homes for 100,000 at-risk individuals by July 2014. There are over 200 communities nationwide participating in the effort and together they have housed more than 90,000 of America’s most vulnerable individuals, including over 25,000 Veterans. The communities are spread across the nation and include Portland, OR; Indianapolis, IN; Nashville, TN (recently profiled on 60 Minutes); Atlanta, GA and Tulsa, OK. The housing first method was designed for individuals and families that are chronically homeless and that have mental illness or substance abuse problems, and it provides them with a stable life that is supported by social services.

The problem of homelessness impacts communities of every size, it is also an expensive one. The costs associated with it include: incarcerations, emergency room visits, medical treatments, emergency shelters, food, and other social assistance. The housing first method saves taxpayers’ money and is a more efficient use of vital community investment dollars, regardless of your personal feelings towards homelessness. One study on Los Angeles estimated that the public cost for a chronically homeless person was $34,764 a year, but when those individuals were put in supportive housing, public costs dropped by 79 percent. Similarly, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article which concluded that more than $4.0 million was saved after one year of housing 95 chronically homeless individuals in Seattle. Philip Mangano, the former head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, emphasized the issue with one simple statement: "We learned that you could either sustain people in homelessness for $35,000 to $150,000 a year, or you could literally end their homelessness for $13,000 to $25,000 a year." The cost-effectiveness of the program is what has been the main driver for getting public and political support.

Tulsa’s nationally recognized program is an example of the success a community can have. Together with Building Tulsa, Building Lives and other partners, The Mental Health Association in Tulsa implemented a debt-free housing model. They began by launching a capital campaign, raising funds through HUD grants, private capital, and income from Section 8 and other subsidies. They were able to use the money raised, along with federal funds, to purchase and create affordable housing in the Tulsa area. What began with 12 housing units has grown dramatically, and today they own and manage 833 housing units and 25 apartment complexes. Part of the program’s success is due to their implementation of a “mixed income, mixed population” model where 50 percent of units are dedicated to housing the chronically homeless or formally homeless and the other 50 percent to tenants at market prices. Because they own the properties debt-free, rental income supports operating costs. This model is successful. In 2012, 91 percent of those housed that had previously been homeless had not returned to homelessness.

In the face of such tragedies like the shooting of James Boyd, it’s inspiring to hear about communities, such as Tulsa, coming together to find long-term, sustainable solutions for such an important issue. Homelessness affects everyone in the community, and the housing first model has been shown to be cost-effective and to reduce panhandling, alcohol and drug abuse, and the use of emergency services. As economic development professionals, so much of what we do is tied to raising standards of living for every community member. By getting people off the streets and into safe, stable housing in a supportive environment, they can increase their level of self-sufficiency, break the cycle of homelessness, and transition back into being more productive members of society. Rather than simply managing the problem of homelessness, communities can end it, reduce costs, and increase the quality of life for everyone in the community.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Climate Change: It’s No Laughing Matter

By Jim Vaughan, Senior Fellow

My Rotary Club has a weekly news feature designed to provide a little information and a lot of laughs. The format is always the same—weather forecast for the week, sports scores for area colleges and pro teams, current stock averages followed by several news items of interest and a closing joke.

Rotary News is presented by a former television personality who operates a marketing firm and writes a humor column in a local magazine. And while he always gets a chuckle out of me—sometimes even a laugh out loud—I am troubled by how easy it is for him to make light of the big issues of the day.

Topics like climate change, peace in the Middle East, providing affordable health care—you get the idea.

Maybe it’s just easier to laugh about the big issues than to address them, or perhaps it’s because we have heard the topics so many times and seen, seemingly, so little action.

Take climate change. The New York Times and other media organizations reported on March 31, on a sobering report by a United Nations panel that climate change “is already having sweeping effects on every continent and throughout the world’s oceans and the problem is likely to grow substantially worse unless greenhouse emissions are brought under control.”

The chairman of the panel said, “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.” Fortunately, the co-chair of the working group that wrote the report said “dealing effectively with climate change is going to be something that great nations do.”

Not just nations, but companies too.

A 60 Minutes broadcast on March 30 featured Tesla CEO Elon Musk who is building all-electric automobiles and soon the longer-range, lower cost batteries that will make the cars more competitive.

Musk said his goal in starting Tesla was to reduce greenhouse gasses that threaten the world. Based on the accolades the car is getting (Five-star rating for safety) and its popularity (there is a 1-3 month waiting list) the $62,400-$85,900 vehicles are going to reduce greenhouse gasses and perhaps change a whole industry.

To extend driving range, a problem for electric vehicles, Tesla is building a network of charging stations where the driver pays nothing for a fill up. Musk hopes to make the stations largely solar powered one day.

“You can drive for free, forever, on pure sunlight,” Musk said.

And the company plans to build a $5 billion factory in the U.S., called Gigafactory, that will “make more lithium ion batteries than all the other plants on the earth combined” and reduce battery cell costs by more than 30 percent.

Another company that is changing its business model to reduce its impact on climate change is none other than Florida Power & Light. The company has built the first power plant in the nation to generate electricity from both solar and natural gas.

When the sun is shining, the plant makes good use of the Sunshine State’s greatest asset, but also uses natural gas to ensure its plant produces power at full capacity. At night and on cloudy days, natural gas ensures that FPL customers can still rely on the power they need to live their lives.

So much for the argument that solar is a good idea but not dependable for widespread use.

And what is the natural gas industry saying about the FPL plant? “This high-tech power plant reduces greenhouse gas emissions by more than 62,000 metric tons” annually.”

In the early 1990s, when I was president of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, I met Paul Hawken, cofounder of several businesses and author of “The Ecology of Commerce.” Hawken’s radical notion was simple: Business has contributed to the problems of environmental degradation and it is the only institution in the modern world that is powerful enough to reverse it.

The Greater Waco Chamber built the nation’s first “green chamber building” as a symbol of its commitment to sustainability. When a regional utility proposed building more than a dozen coal-fired electric plants in Central Texas, the Chamber advocated for official standing in the permitting process which contributed to the utility’s decision not to build the plants. And its strategic plans—developed with Market Street Services—focus on the holistic nature of economic and community development and a sustainable future.

In spite of the laughter at my Rotary Club, global climate change is no laughing matter.

Fortunately, start-up companies like Tesla, old-line companies like Florida Power & Light and chambers of commerce like in Waco, are doing something about it.