The Data Scientist Taking on America's Urban Decay
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Her platform could help rebuild crumbling inner cities.
By James Watkins
Chatting with Stacey Mosley in a small coffee shop opposite Philadelphia’s City Hall, we are interrupted by someone insisting Mosley be introduced to a companion. Slender, soft-spoken and affable, Mosley finds herself in an usual position: She is a 30-year-old female entrepreneur and data scientist disrupting an aggressively old-school industry — real estate development. But her self-assurance and intelligence — and command over her newfound specialist subject — enable her not only to muscle in on this boys-club, network-based industry, but also to embrace it.
As all good startup stories begin, Mosley’s inspiration hit out of nowhere. Laid off from work one year out of college, she moved back in with her parents in a leafy town outside the city. Shuttling into the heart of the metropolis on the suburban rail line, she was stunned by the contrasts in the urban landscape flashing past her window. Mansions with swimming pools and manicured gardens one minute, and “all of a sudden you’re in North Philly, and the backs of houses are falling down,” she says. And as all good startup stories continue, the young entrepreneur thought, “There’s something wrong here. What can be done about it?”
What she did was create a platform that pulls together open municipal data for real estate developers. Sounds wonky, but her FixList platform — described as the Zillow of redevelopment — could help America’s real estate and construction markets remedy a problem plaguing metropolitan areas throughout the country: urban blight. FixList pools city-held data on neighborhood tax delinquency, vacancy rates, construction history, zoning changes and some 20 other indices to model and score properties developers should snap up for redevelopment. It doesn’t dig into the financials, but if a property scores high on FixList, it’s rife for refurbishment. And, in a place like Philadelphia, where roughly 10 percent of the city’s 600,000 properties lie vacant, a dose of data science may be just the thing to close the gap between an obvious problem and those who can fix it. Mosley is “a great person on to a great idea with a great vision,” says Rick Nucci, a Philadelphia startup guru (he co-founded Boomi and Guru and leads Philly Startup Leaders, a group working to promote local entrepreneurship) — and Mosley’s mentor for the past year. By attacking a direct and identifiable business problem, he says, FixList “has massive potential.” She was recently announced Innovator of the Year by women’s group Rad Girls during Philly Tech Week.
Before [Mosley’s] FixList, research involved “cobbling together little bits of information” from several government websites.
Since the product launched in mid-2016, over 30 clients, mostly local developers, have paid premium fees to access the data service (depending on the organization’s size and the amount of data required, monthly fees run to $100 or more) and report that it has helped increase their property redevelopment pipelines. Mosley plans to expand the platform to two other cities this year and reach more than 15 cities in five years’ time. And her vision extends beyond development: Mosley flags the potential for real estate agencies, appraisers and even government agencies to make use of the data, and adding more indices could help nonprofits use FixList to monitor neighborhood socioeconomic outcomes related to housing.
While spotting a run-down section of a city shouldn’t require input from a data scientist, it can be surprisingly difficult for developers to home in on properties that are most in need. That’s because developers often build up a familiarity with a particular neighborhood, says Angie Williamson of Philly Office Retail, a real estate development group with a focus on Northwest Philadelphia — and a FixList early adopter. For redevelopers to identify properties in other neighborhoods, “it’s basically word of mouth or if you happen to be driving by,” she says. Before FixList, research involved “cobbling together little bits of information” from several government websites. Mosley’s platform “allows us to do legwork before [hitting the streets on foot],” Williamson adds.
So far, FixList is still a two-person show: Mosley has a business partner who acts as CTO, leaving her to run business strategy and creative direction — as well as most of the data science efforts and some front-end technical development. But she’s been a jack-of-all-trades all her life, combining an interest in math and science with a creative streak (which she traces to her art-teacher grandmother). While studying engineering at Northwestern University, she applied her technical know-how to creative projects in industrial and product design. After getting laid off from her first job out of college, as a creative consultant at Philly-based startup Ticketleap, her interest in the built environment eventually led to a job crunching real estate data at Philadelphia City Hall — a post she talked her way into after asking a Visitor Center volunteer what the city was doing about urban blight.
One year postlaunch, this startup story is still in the early chapters. The product was developed with money from Mosley’s own pocket (savings she set aside working at city hall), and with no official marketing spend, most of FixList’s sales have been drummed up through Mosley’s networking. “She’s setting herself up for success because she’s truly figuring out how to tap into people who can help her,” Nucci says. The company was recently accepted into a local accelerator program.
Raising early rounds of capital can be challenging in a city like Philadelphia, Nucci says, as there are fewer local VC funds compared to tech hubs like New York, Boston or the Bay Area. But “it’s a really cool time in Philly,” he’s quick to add, as the city is attracting top tech talent fueling the startup scene. Plus, there may be no better city than Philadelphia for a startup focused on helping to cure urban blight. Its next target is Baltimore, after which any number of American cities could benefit from a FixList face-lift.