When Data Fails Us. Reconciling COVID and Experience, by Lou Cespedes
I’m not a mathematician. It’s also true I don’t have “Big Data” resources at my fingertips. I am not a statistics junkie. I don’t get “turned-on” by graphs or numeric analysis. I find them informative and useful as a barometer of chance and choice. More importantly, I also know that if a statistic has been recorded, it has happened in the past. Will that information be useful in the future – sure- it could be. Will it guarantee future performance; not really. Of course, we can speak in generalities about Data. You know; you stand a greater chance of being struck by lightening than dying in a plane accident. Yeah – so what? Does that mean I should fly more – or perhaps it means I’ll make a determination not to fly because I feel safer driving. Who knows?
What I know is building codes. I need them to do my job. I am a building professional. When I work to calculate how many people can occupy a building, I consult a Table 6-2 of the New York City Building Code. It tells me how many people I am allowed to put on a floor, in a building, for a specified use, as an approximation of “density of persons per square foot”. It’s important to know that this rule is flexible. I can increase that number based on other factors. As a building planner, I also have to know something about experience, how people function within a building or environment, and what they will likely do. We have building codes because we have learned to implement rules from lessons learned in the past, after tragedies like fires, poisoning, falling bricks, and yes diseases.
Statistics, rules, tables, and code approximations of how a human being will respond in a given condition will vary dramatically when they are facing existential or physical limits. That is when regulations and codes go out the window. If I have an office that legally seats 20 and suddenly have to hire 10 more persons, faced with the choice to break the law or spend tens of thousands of dollars, I will break the law and create a hazard. Why? Its cheaper, less disruptive to my business and I will pay less rent. Am I over capacity? C’mon who’s gonna know, right? If this happens in an office, how much more often do you think this happens in housing – in New York City? It happens a lot! It happens mostly to the poor. When I say poor, I don’t mean white college kids that share an apartment and will jump on an airplane and go home when trouble comes. I mean generationally poor families – mom, grandma, kids, and the kids’ kids living under one roof, in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens.
Enter the COVID 19 pandemic and the “Big Data” fanatics, that Monday morning quarterback every decision made by Governor Cuomo, to gradually wind down activity and shut down the city and the state. California is their favorite comparison, Los Angeles and San Fran is their orange to our apple. The “Data” says a lot, and it may even point to California’s far better performance in governance than in New York State. Well, I applaud the leaders of California, Los Angeles and San Francisco – well done! States have enormous power, but they seldom have enormous budgets. San Francisco Mayor is not Bill de Blasio, and Gavin Newsom is not Governor of New York State. These are both true statements that have absolutely no bearing on how they may have performed if they were. They are NOT the same places geographically, politically, or empirically. It is just Data jockeying to push an agenda, even if the agenda is noble.
Data of occupants per square mile won’t necessarily tell you about density in an immigrant community where 10 people share an apartment, because those transient dwellers will probably not answer the census. It also doesn’t tell you, where they work, if they are more exposed to infection, if they have healthcare, if they can go elsewhere if they fall ill, or whether they will be expelled from their apartment. You only truly understand something you have lived through. When you are that migrant person living cash by the hour-, the last thing you want to hear is – “stay home – stay safe”. Ahem, that’s a white person, encapsulating the world how it oughta be through Data, not the world as it is. Naturally, none of that Data will mean diddly to us because it is mining the past to draw out conclusions about a future that will not belong to us. It doesn’t help us get back to work, it doesn’t help us pay the mortgage, it doesn’t help us put our kids through school, it doesn’t help us get better healthcare, it doesn’t help us heal, and it doesn’t help us create more affordable housing with better quality environments. It just helps some white guy with a degree in number crunching become “an expert” in telling us how we should live, without giving us the means to do it.
Density is how I make my living. Density is not bad; poverty in density is! Offices all over Manhattan will face a critical question in the months ahead; How do you sustain paying rent for a space which only half of your staff occupies? That will have a direct impact on density and the economy. Numbers, statistics, and dollars have gotten us to where we are today, and I have little faith they will help us tomorrow. As surely as the sun will rise, debate about density in the workplace, in transit, and in the home will be with us for months and years to come. Rather than a discussion about how Data will help make politicians make better decisions about statecraft, perhaps what we should really be talking about is how to create more equitable, sanitary, and sustainable environments.