Ben Wellington, Open Data, and 'I Quant NY'
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because one man really can change a city — and open data may be the key.
By Farah Halime
Talk about getting egg on your face. Earlier this year, the New York City Department of Transportation was accused of generating $55,000 a year in tickets from cars that appeared to be parking legally near two specific fire hydrants. Not long after Ben Wellington pinpointed those hydrants and his online report went viral, the data-loving citizen investigator learned that the DOT said it would be reviewing roadway markings then repainted the parking spots so that drivers would stop getting ticketed. (The DOT didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
He’s known as the guy behind the popular “I Quant NY ” blog. But you can call him the king of New York’s “open data” movement, where a major law that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed in 2012 forces city agencies to make all the data they produce publicly available and searchable online. Yet few seem to dig as deep into the troves of data surrounding everyday issues that really piss off, delight or intrigue New Yorkers as Wellington, who has posted about the city’s filthiest fast-food chains and mapped out how half of Manhattan is within four blocks of a Starbucks and which ’hoods boast the most trees. (You know, just in case you were wondering.)
[City] agencies are not quite sure what to do with this citizen-style, open data.
– Ben Wellington
The 33-year-old runs his blog from a laptop in his Brooklyn apartment when he isn’t working as a visiting assistant professor at the Pratt Institute’s grad center for planning or as a number cruncher who helps predict the market patterns for a multibillion-dollar hedge fund called Two Sigma Investments. His mission is simple: to change government policy by using open data. And he’s becoming a force to be reckoned with as he publicizes all of the things that the city’s agencies are doing wrong. “I’m trying to make stats accessible,” he says, “and even cool. I magine that.”
Alas, a caped crusader he is not. The skinny data nerd, who holds a Ph.D. in empirical natural language processing (or, in English, the computer science behind programs like Apple’s Siri and Google Translate), prefers to call himself a ”mathematical DJ.” Indeed, his love for numbers spills into a stats course that he teaches at Pratt and is based on real open data from New York. That class, and chats with students, are the foundation for his blog, which he launched in February. While analyzing data takes up a significant chunk of his time both inside and outside of academia, Wellington says he really wants to tell stories and be a catalyst for better policy-making in the city — and he’s doing that one data set at a time.
Some agencies may be ready to work together on his findings. Wellington says he’s in “preliminary conversations” with a number of local government officials, and a spokesperson for the New York City comptroller — a big data provider that Wellington has mined several times for insight on legal claims against the city — tells OZY that Wellington’s work is among those helping to “shape conversations and promote data-driven policy in America’s largest city.”
But these are bureaucrats, after all, and they’re not exactly the most open to change. “Agencies are not quite sure what to do with this citizen-style, open data,” says Wellington. “When you go to somebody and tell them that something is broken, their first instinct is to get defensive.” No kidding. While many agencies have responded to Wellington’s claims, some of them have flat-out denied his allegations. He accused the Department of Health, for instance, of overseeing a flawed restaurant grading system where lenient inspectors inflated many grades up to an “A.” The department, however, dismissed Wellington’s conspiracy theory and noted that inspectors are told to cite whatever they see.
No bother. There’s always another cause worth championing, and Wellington jumps from one to the other, whether it’s mapping out payphones that are now free Wi-Fi hotspots or listing the areas of the country that offer significantly better public housing than New York. That’s his style: spontaneous. Last year, he and his wife, Leslie, bought a 1973 VW bus — off eBay — and used it to drive across the country for three months. (They were going to sell it but fell in love with it.) Even in class, students describe the frenetic, fast talker as the type of lecturer who bounces from one student to the other in a way that he no doubt honed after he founded a comedic improv group and more recently started working with another.
He’s giving a voice to those who might not even know where to start looking.
But not all of Wellington’s efforts to make a change have gone according to plan. The blogosphere erupted over his theory that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was charging subway users in a way that helped it pocket about $50 million a year in unredeemed, excess balances. The MTA denied it was purposely bilking commuters but said it would keep in mind the fares he’d suggested when it rolls out a fare increase next year.
At the same time, Wellington tries to avoid writing his posts in a way that might be accused of falling to the left or right of the political spectrum. (His wife works for New York City Council, after all.) His supporters, of course, say he’s discovering some real consumer pain points and giving a voice to those who might not even know where to start looking in all that digital data. “He has real solutions,” says Wil Fisher, a recent political science grad who bought tickets to hear Wellington speak at a November TEDx conference in New York .
These days, Wellington says he’s working on a book about data — inspired by one of his favorite titles, Kate Ascher’s The Works: Anatomy of a City , which tries to shed light on the obscure innards underpinning the country’s biggest city. As for his next open data act, Wellington is considering tackling a more ambitious topic: calculating the likelihood of a fire in certain New York neighborhoods, in part, by analyzing the age and size of buildings. “I’m doing data science on a rapid cycle approach,” he says. “Maybe it takes me four hours instead of four months to do a study, and that leaves a lot of questions — but, more importantly, it gets people talking.”
Photography by Rich Villa for OZY
Quotation marks that were incorrectly included in this article around one comment were removed.