New York Geek Squad: Big Data Helps to Improve City Life

In an example of Big Data’s growing influence, New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection requested help in cracking down on restaurants illegally pouring cooking oil into sewers. It called upon the city’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning, “a geek squad of civic-minded number-crunchers.” Using public data, they were able to track illegal dumping with 95 percent accuracy.

“They dug up data from the Business Integrity Commission, an obscure city agency that among other tasks certifies that all local restaurants have a carting service to haul away their grease,” reports The New York Times. “With a few quick calculations, comparing restaurants that did not have a carter with geo-spatial data on the sewers, the team was able to hand inspectors a list of statistically likely suspects.”

“With nothing grander than public data, the Case of the Grease-Clogged Sewers was solved,” the article adds.

There’s a new book out about this topic. Called “Big Data: A Revolution that Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think,” the book explores the idea that the vast amount of information “whirling through the ether can affect and enhance our quality of life.”

“The change of scale has led to a change of state,” according to the authors.

“For the modest sum of $1 million, and at a moment when decreasing budgets have required increased efficiency, the in-house geek squad has over the last three years leveraged the power of computers to double the city’s hit rate in finding stores selling bootleg cigarettes; sped the removal of trees destroyed by Hurricane Sandy; and helped steer overburdened housing inspectors — working with more than 20,000 options — directly to lawbreaking buildings where catastrophic fires were likeliest to occur,” details NYT.

Michael Flowers, who oversees the group, suggests that tapping into social media data can help the city.

“His most ambitious plan was a proposal to move beyond public information into the deeper and possibly more profitable mine of social-media data,” notes the article. “Every day, he said, there are 250,000 New York-centric posts on Twitter alone — some concerning trash complaints, others unsanitary restaurant conditions.”

“If Young & Rubicam can use tweets to sell you stuff,” he asked, “why can’t the city use them to make you less sick?”