311 Calls and the Study of “Broken Windows”: An exploration of urban neighborhoods in the age of computational science

March 13, 2014 - 12:00pm to 1:15pm
311 Calls and the Study of “Broken Windows”: An exploration of urban neighborhoods in the age of computational science
Dan O’Brien, Research Director for the Boston Area Research Initiative
310 Renaissance Park, Northeastern University
Boston, MA

Abstract: The collection of large-scale administrative records in electronic form by many
cities provides a new opportunity for the study of urban neighborhoods, but the specific
ways that they might be leveraged for research, policy, and practice are not immediately
apparent. In turn there is a need for initial work that identifies what we might learn
from these data and develops novel methodologies that convert them into research-
relevant measures. This talk summarizes one such effort, describing two ways in which a
database of more than 300,000 requests for government services received by the City of
Boston’s “Constituent Relationship Management” (CRM) system have been used to further
research on “broken windows theory,” and the role that physical disorder (e.g., graffiti,
deterioration) plays in cycles of neighborhood decline and blight. First, a methodology
is presented that uses the CRM database to “see” neighborhood conditions, generating
measures of physical disorder across time and space (i.e., an ecometric). Second, individual
CRM reports are examined as manifestations of custodianship, behaviors that are intended
to maintain order within the neighborhood. By analyzing patterns of reporting across
the users of the CRM system, it is possible to learn not only about custodianship as a
behavior, but also about the role custodians play in creating order across neighborhoods.
The implications of these two lines of research for broken windows theory are discussed,
as well as the potential for a broader computational urban science in which research and
policy can both benefit from the use of administrative data.

Dan O’Brien is the research director for the Boston Area Research Initiative, leading and
coordinating a range of urban research projects that include collaborators from across
the social and behavioral sciences, as well as local policymakers and practitioners. His
research uses large, administrative data sets (i.e., “big data”) in conjunction with traditional
methodologies to explore psychology and sociology in urban neighborhoods. Much of
his work has been on: "broken windows," or the presence of disorder and deterioration
in a neighborhood; and using urban neighborhoods as a study case for the evolution of
cooperation. Dan came to BARI from Binghamton University in Binghamton, NY, where
he received his doctorate and was a founding member of the Binghamton Neighborhood
Project, a program similar to BARI in its interdisciplinary effort to unify researchers,
policymakers, and practitioners in the study of urban life. He is also the editor of the
journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences.