NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress Tackles Bus Reliability, Harmful Landlord Practices, with Data

In a new series called MetroLab's Innovation of the Month, we examine innovative data projects between universities and local governments.

by / September 8, 2017

This month kicks off a new series called MetroLab's Innovation of the Month, in which Government Technology is partnering with MetroLab Network to recognize impactful tech, data and innovation projects between cities and universities.

In this post, we spotlight projects from NYU's Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP). In particular, the Urban Science Intensive Capstones, a program led by Professor Constantine Kontokosta, has become a mechanism to connect student teams to local government needs. MetroLab Executive Director Ben Levine sat down with Professor Kontokosta and this year’s two Capstone finalists to talk about the program and the finalists’ projects.

Ben Levine: What is CUSP and what is the goal of these capstone projects? What are the benefits of having students engage with city agencies?

Constantine Kontokosta: New York University's Center for Urban Science & Progress is a universitywide center whose research and education programs are focused on urban informatics. Using NYC as its lab, and building from its home in the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, it integrates and applies NYU strengths in the natural, data, and social sciences to understand and improve cities throughout the world. 

The Urban Science Intensive Capstones are projects which consist of team-based work on real-world urban issues. Teams work with a project sponsor — often a government agency or non-profit — to define the problem, collect and analyze data, visualize the results, and finally, formulate and deliver a possible solution. Student teams are challenged to utilize urban informatics within the constraints of city operations and planning, while considering political, social, and financial issues and balancing privacy and confidentiality with transparency. The goal of each project is to create impactful, replicable and actionable results that inform data-driven urban operations or continued research. 

Out of the 17 participating capstone projects, two projects were selected as finalists by a review panel at the end of the semester. The winning teams’ projects are highlighted below.

Project Title: busstat.nyc, an interactive dashboard for MTA bus reliability metrics.

Team members: Ian Wright, Nurvita Monarizqa, Shay Lehmann, Hongting Chen and Francis Ko

Levine: Congratulations on your selection as one of the two finalists. Can you describe what your project focused on and what motivated you to address this particular challenge?

busstat Team: Thank you! It turns out that New York City buses have been gradually losing ridership to an increasing overcapacity in the subway system for several years now. One reason for this shift may be declining service reliability throughout parts of the MTA bus system. So, we partnered with the public transit reform advocacy group, TransitCenter, to drill into this issue from a data-driven perspective. Our project is an interactive dashboard that uses open data to build and display useful reliability metrics, right down to the bus stop level, for about 200 of the city’s most popular bus lines. The idea was to generate public interest in bus service reliability, in addition to building a robust tool that may be useful for government advocacy campaigns. We believe that analytical tools like ours should help surface particular parts of the bus system that require deeper investment from the MTA, and ultimately begin to rebuild the public trust that is necessary for an effective transit system.

Screenshot of busstat.nyc, currently in beta mode. Image courtesy of Ian Wright.

 What did you learn about government and innovation from the process? What was the most surprising thing you learned during your research?

busstat Team: A government must first be able to identify problems before figuring out where and how to innovate. We were surprised to learn that the MTA currently evaluates bus system performance using only the “percentage of completed trips” and “wait assessment” — a metric that quantifies bus arrivals that deviate from their schedule above a certain threshold. We sought to improve this by introducing metrics that weigh the magnitude of deviation, and consider in-bus travel time, to evaluate a more complete user experience. One of the big takeaways from our project is the importance of tailoring data collection for the task at hand. Because we adapted data for busstat that was originally collected for other purposes, we were forced to make several accuracy-hindering assumptions throughout development. Building quality reliability metrics was harder than we expected, as it requires both high-quality data and well-defined criteria against which to evaluate.

Levine: Where will this project go from here?

busstat Team: Because our team has now graduated from CUSP, we’ve been working closely with TransitCenter to hand off ownership of the application. TransitCenter is excited to roll the tool into some upcoming transit advocacy campaigns around New York City. The website is still in beta today, so we think there is massive potential to expand and improve the service. There’s only so much you can accomplish in one school term! We’d also love to see the tool being applied to more cities someday soon.

Project Title: Piercing the Veil of the Corporate Landlord

Team members: Shalmali Kulkarni, Xinge Zhong, Nathan Weber, Sebastian Bana (Project Team); Prof. Debra Laefer, Prof. Huy T. Vo (Project advisors); Lacey R. Keller (Project Sponsor)

Levine: Congratulations on being selected as one of the two finalists. Can you describe what your project focused on and what motivated you to address this particular challenge?

‘Piercing the Veil’ Team: Our project’s goal was to develop a tool to support the NYS Office of the Attorney General's (OAG) efforts in combatting harmful landlord practices. In particular, the tool integrates data from a number of sources to create a more complete picture of ownership details, ownership changes and financial relationships of properties in New York City. A more holisitc view of the available data supports OAG in their effort to combat harmful landlord practices, such as tenant harassment. In a broader sense, the project focused on one of the big topics of Urban Informatics — and one that CUSP puts particular emphasis on — making cities more equitable. Adequate housing is not just a desirable attribute of a city, but a basic human right. The OAG’s work is key to protecting some of these basic principles, including security of tenure, affordability and habitability. We were excited about both the importance of the topic and the potential impact of our tool. Additionally, as a team, we found the previous work by the OAG’s research department very inspiring, and we were keen to have them as our sponsor.

Screenshot of Piercing the Veil

Screenshot of the Veil Piercer displaying a complete owner's portfolio summary. The map presents the location of the portfolio's properties, supported by information on consolidated complaints and types of violations.

Levine: What did you learn about government and innovation from the process? What was the most surprising thing you learned during your research?

‘Piercing the Veil’ Team: We learned that there is innovation happening at different levels of government — and activities at the state level affect local priorities. OAG has its own Research Department and its work directly supports not only the OAG's initiatives and investigations but also policy development. One of the most surprising things that we learned on this project was how certain innovations that are often celebrated, like online services to lease or rent short-term housing, can have a widespread, negative impact on entire neighborhoods when not properly regulated.

Levine: Where will this project go from here?

‘Piercing the Veil’ Team: We are currently working with the OAG on transitioning the application to their team. Ultimately, the tool will become fully operational under the OAG’s Information Communications Technology team and they have sufficient technical documentation not only to maintain the tool, but to enhance it. During the initial phase of the project, we identified three additional use cases that will be interesting to explore and eventually develop: (1) use of graph modeling techniques and the development of a graph exploration tool (we ended up developing a proof-of-concept for this); (2) development of  advanced analytics and machine learning to generate insights; and (3) integration with the OAG case management system. Finally, one of the ideas that we always considered with the project sponsor was to go fully open source and publicly deploy a version of the tool so that it could be used by the general public.

For more information or to get in contact with the project leads, please contact MetroLab.

About MetroLab: MetroLab Network introduces a new model for bringing data, analytics, and innovation to local government: a network of institutionalized, cross-disciplinary partnerships between cities/counties and their universities. Its membership includes more than 35 such partnerships in the United States, ranging from mid-size cities to global metropolises. These city-university partnerships focus on the research, development, and deployment of projects that offer technologically- and analytically-based solutions to challenges facing urban areas including: inequality in income, health, mobility, security and opportunity; aging infrastructure; and environmental sustainability and resiliency. MetroLab was launched as part of the White House’s 2015 Smart Cities Initiative.

Ben Levine Executive Director, MetroLab Network

Ben Levine is the executive director of MetroLab Network. Previously he was a policy adviser at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, where he was responsible for policy development pertaining to state and local government finance, with a focus on infrastructure policy. He worked closely with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy on the organization and launch of MetroLab Network. Prior to that Ben worked at Morgan Stanley. He is a graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.