"We're trying to make your lives easier in any way we can while allocating those resources as effectively as we can so we don't have to tax you as heavily as we have in the past," Flowers explains. "What we needed to do was come up with a way to demonstrate the utility of a common platform. I needed to go out and demonstrate to the New York City governmental community that it made sense for us to put this information together and use it. That was our job; that's what the skunkworks was really about."
Skunkworks Big Data and Illegal Conversions
The project was ambitious. Flowers wanted to use the data to help identify buildings likely to house illegal conversions--for instance a building safely zoned to house six human beings that a developer chops up to fit 60 people.
Based on complaints to the 311 line, you would assume the majority of illegal conversions take place in lower Manhattan. If you plot the complaints on a map, lower Manhattan "blows up like a tomato," Flowers says. But actually, inspectors from the Buildings Department are far more likely to find the illegal conversions in the outer boroughs: Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.
"We're sending our resources where the complaints are instead of where the conditions are," Flowers says. "And those conditions are very serious. Why are they serious? In the spring and summer of 2011, we had two buildings go up in flames that had been illegally converted. We had some firemen get seriously injured and we had people die."
Indeed, buildings that are illegal conversions are the scenes of a lot more fire per property, Flowers says. And, more importantly, firemen are much more likely to be injured or killed fighting such fires because exits tend to get blocked.
"My office was tasked with figuring out how to fix that," Flowers says.
Successful Data Project Starts with Talking to People
It might seem like an unlikely goal for a team like Flowers'. No one on his staff has an advanced degree, and everyone, except Flowers himself, is age 25 or younger. Additionally, because it was a skunkworks project, no one outside the team really understood what they were doing. But they were determined to make a difference. One of the first things Flowers did was to go out into the field and talk to the people on the front lines.
"We got out in the field," he says. "I talked to firemen. I talked to policemen. I talked to inspectors from the Buildings Department, from Housing Preservation & Development. I talked to the Water Department. I asked them: 'When you go to a place that's a dump, what do you see?' Then I replicated that in the data."
Flowers had his team study actual "vacates"--instances where an inspector had found a building so unsafe that it had to be emptied either in whole or in part.