Faculty Spotlight: Genie Stowers on Data and the Equity, Efficiency, and Effectiveness of Cities

In an era of increasing privatization of city services – either to nonprofit or for-profit entities – it is easy to lose sight of the services cities still do provide, and how equitable, efficient, and effective cities are at providing those services to their citizens.

Genie Stowers, professor in the Public Administration program in San Francisco State’s School of Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, is tackling this important but little researched issue by taking a closer look at data generated by city 311 programs.

311 allows any city resident to easily contact city officials about an issue, such as graffiti, a broken streetlight, a pothole, or an abandoned car. Currently, 19 U.S. cities provide 3-1-1 information through the Open Data Portal, a clearinghouse of data related to a given city. San Francisco is among the cities using the Open Data Portal.

The task Stowers has taken on is gargantuan, with 1.5 million records from New York City alone, not to mention individual datasets from 18 other cities. “Trying to find the basis for what’s going on in those cities takes a long time, and every dataset is different. Every city uses different variables.” For example, New York City includes public health in its 311 services, while Denver includes vehicle registration. Stowers is currently looking for variables common across all cities, so she can make comparisons.

So far in Stowers’ research, “there are more recycling and garbage requests than anything else,” she said. “It really differs by city. Different cities use this service in very different ways.”

“The ultimate goal is to try to understand if cities are providing these services in an equitable fashion,” Stowers said. “For instance, (in San Francisco) the calls clearing abandoned vehicles happen way faster in the upper income and financial districts than in the lower income districts.” Equity can also include comparisons across departments and across cities. “Ultimately that’s what I want to see. Do the graffiti calls get resolved more quickly in richer neighborhoods or in poorer neighborhoods? Do particular departments do things faster than other departments?”

Stowers, whose research focus is quantitative, plans to partner with another faculty member from Jacksonville, Florida focusing on this from a qualitative perspective. “There’s virtually no research done on the 311 systems yet.” The two eventually plan to write a book, focused on equity in providing city services.

Stowers also just completed work on a new textbook on city management with a special emphasis on sustainability and technology. “The big theme throughout is how to help make cities more sustainable and how to help cities manage upcoming climate change in an effective way.”

She took the book project on, because “there was no (existing) textbook that I thought captured the excitement and energy of cities today… I thought they were all boring… and, there was no real delving into the different issues and policy directions – much less all the innovations, creativity, and entrepreneurship – going on.”

The book brings city management into the future, by including new data sources and visualizations, as well as helping students understand the stakeholders in cities and how citizens can get engaged. In addition, the discussion sections of each book encourage students to think critically, research their own data sources, face challenging ethical situations, disagree, and discuss complex issues.

Stowers says a primary goal of the book is to teach students, “How do you make tradeoffs between equity and efficiency and effectiveness? If one choice would lead to a more equitable outcome but you have to save money and so another choice would lead to a more efficient outcome, what is your obligation? How do you make that decision?”

For example, “If you were a city manager with a NIMBY (not in my backyard) situation: You have a group home that wants to locate in your middle class neighborhood, and your neighbors don’t want a group home in their neighborhood. What do you do? As a city manager, how do you make that decision? How do you engage stakeholders?”

Stowers says this book is unique also because it offers new perspectives, including data on LGBTQ populations, as well as the fact that it comes from a female author in a traditionally male-dominated profession.

As a core faculty member in the EDDL program, Stowers offers sage advice for doctoral students. “Comparative studies are better than case studies. You learn more. With a case study, you’re very limited in what you can generalize. You’re always better off if you can incorporate more than one unit in your study. Even though it can be very hard to do that, it’s worth it.”

In addition, she cautions that real data can be messy. “You have to figure out how to handle particular idiosyncrasies in a way that’s not going to distort your findings. Real world data is not clean, and you’ve got to figure out a rational way to deal with the issues. You also have to document your choices, so that other people know how you handled it.”

Stowers’ book is slated for release in Fall 2017 or Spring 2018. Her 311 data project is ongoing.