16 friends and strangers representing different professional fields gathered to discuss how their city could develop a strategic beauty plan. Photo by author.

Discussing Beauty During NYC’s First Open Data Week

Some context, some ideas, some recommendations

Last week, New York City celebrated its first open data week. Kicking off on March 4th, during International Open Data Day, the week of activities commemorated the fifth anniversary of NYC’s open data law. Since the law’s release, over 1,600 data sets have been collected and made available for public use.

With this information at our fingertips, what will the residents of New York accomplish?

Marvin J. Mathew and I met because we want to know the answer to this question. As part of open data week, we invited 14 friends and collaborators to dinner to discuss civic issues not in terms of problems and solutions, but in terms of beauty. We challenged each other and our guests to think of ways that data could help our city reveal more of its civic beauty. New York City has a strategic plan. It also has an open data portal. Could beauty, an admittedly unusual partner, connect these two tools and make each more accessible to the public at large?

Beauty Is A Strategy

Beauty can galvanize a city’s residents to live into a better future. When we first connected, Marvin and I quickly discovered a shared passion for the story of Medellin, Colombia. I first heard of Medellin’s history from the below article written about its bold, risk-taking mayor in 2007. Marvin’s connection is closer to the ground, having lived, worked and built community in Colombia over the last 3 years.

For some urban planners, architects, and policy makers, the transformation narrative of Medellin is well-known. In 2003, Sergio Fajardo was elected mayor of Medellin. Mr Fajardo’s city was known for its violent, drug cartel fueled crime, and for its most infamous son Pablo Escobar. Slowly, the city began to turn over a new leaf. Mr. Fajardo contributed to its positive transformation by adopting an urban development approach that called for the city’s most beautiful buildings to be constructed in its poorest areas. Though his approach to redefine the city’s future by redesigning its civic infrastructure has not been a cure-all, Mr. Fajardo’s culturally and aesthetically motivated actions expanded civic dialogue by encouraging Medellin residents to reengage their civic spaces.

One doesn’t have to share our interest in Medellin to pay attention to the transformative power of a city’s beauty and culture. A report on New York City completed at the beginning of March 2017 has found a strong correlation between the presence of cultural institutions in a neighborhood and that neighborhood’s crime rate.

The researchers found that communities with cultural resources — even those in the lowest 40% of income distribution — had 18% less crime, 14% fewer cases of child abuse and 5% fewer obese residents compared with neighborhoods with similar racial and economic makeups that had few or no cultural institutions.

The newly released report has supported an effort by the Department of Cultural Affairs to put together a citywide cultural plan. The plan will be presented to the City Council this July.

What can beauty do for data?

Dr. King once said that Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Something similar can be said about the relationship between data and beauty. Brene Brown defines authenticity as the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are. Data allows beauty to express itself authentically by revealing what is. Beauty allows data to inspire us to move from what is to what could be.

Each of our guests made a Lego artifact to introduce their vocation or avocation to the group.

Moving from what is to what could be is the goal of New York City’s OneNYC Strategic Plan. During the course of our dinner, we prompted our guests to think individually and in small groups of how we, the residents of New York, could help execute the strategic plan by combining what we felt to be beautiful about our city with data that could give that beauty voice. We came up with a few ideas.

Idea #1 — Make it easy for residents to act.

In preparation for the dinner, Marvin and I sent our guests a link to the 250 plus page report sharing progress made to-date on the OneNYC plan. Our recommendation was to skim the report or look over its executive summary. After flipping through its pages, Nathan Burge, 36, a designer from Canada, came away puzzled. “The report presents all of this information,” Nathan shared, “but it gave me no direction, no call to action. Eventually, I stopped reading. What was the point?”

Recommendation: Incorporate calls to action for residents within future OneNYC progress reports. Who can we call to encourage more progress in a given area? How can residents partner with their local community boards to draw attention to gaps in progress reported and progress felt? The city government has an extensive online presence. Websites listing information about how to contact different levels and agencies of government should be included in printed reports and hyperlinked in digital ones. This information should be called out using a recognizable design language. This way, readers not familiar with policy can quickly scan for what is being said in a nutshell and learn how they can engage.

Idea #2 —Call out beauty wherever it’s found.

How could resident stories of the beauty they see in their daily lives be invited and highlighted on a citywide scale? How could moments of beauty communicated through channels like the city’s social media accounts reflect the positive, personally experienced NYC in future reports?

Recommendation: Resident stories broadly told to support the headway made in each vision area are a great start. What’s next? Dedicate a section to resident stories in the next progress report. Organize these stories by how they connect citywide statistics of progress in each vision area to personally felt impact. These stories could be written or visual. Offline, selected stories would represent the neighborhood faces and voices of our metropolis. Online, these stories could continuously update and flow through existing social media platforms. The city is already making progress on this front. For example, we are excited to see the stories and conversations catalyzed by the One Book, One New York campaign out of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. We hope that some of this campaign’s activity is captured as part of the next strategic progress report.

Idea #3 — Educate as well as update.

There are many aspects of our daily lives impacted by government at the State and Federal levels. Many residents are unaware of them. This leads some NYC residents to misplace their frustration or waste their energy when they confront inaction in the wrong places of decision-making. We need to know who and what to engage in order to feel like we are insiders in our own neighborhoods.

Recommendation: Use infographics or cartoons to put the city government in context. Issue a challenge to high school students to show various ways that State, Federal, and City levels of government work together. Pair winners with prominent NYC designers to produce finished illustrations. The results will identify partners and stakeholders at NY State and Federal levels who influence the issue areas mattering most to each vision area. This information will help residents increase the relevancy of their civic engagement.

Idea #4 — Nature needs to exist outside of natural disasters.

In an urban environment, we tend to react to nature only when it shows up in unwanted ways. For example, the strategic plan and its progress report highlight important, ongoing steps to apply lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy when considering the resiliency of buildings and city infrastructure. Taking a step into a more proactive future, how can we celebrate the ecosystems that exist beyond our eyes and below our feet?

Recommendation: It makes sense for the strategic plan to take a human centered approach to city living. But, we think New York City could take a bolder approach. Our city’s natural ecosystems describing the flora and fauna of our parks, our waterways, and our skies should have its own vision category within the strategic plan. In this way, nature would do what it does best — connect us across neighborhoods, issues, and generations. We don’t have to wait for a natural disaster to do this work for us.


The simple takeaway from our night together? This group of 16 New York City residents can make little personal use of data manuals and progress reports. These efforts to collect and organize information represent important tools for policy- and decision-makers, but in their present form, we have a hunch that they do not activate most New Yorkers. To turn the government’s strategic plan into our city’s shared plan, we need personally felt, community supported beauty. We need to use decentralized resources like the city’s data portal, and centralized efforts like the city’s strategic plan, to inspire people to see beauty around them. How? By allowing New Yorkers to inform each other and their government with their stories. We hope the recommendations above can help connect the incredible work that has happened already with what’s to come.

Many thanks from Marvin J. Mathew and I to our dinner guests: Alex Todaro, Annemarie Gray, Athena Diaconis (Median), Diana Matthews, Hayley Darden, Jerone Hsu, Jesse Lee, Luis A. Navia, Nancy Bui, Nathan Burge, Roya Shariat, and Titiaan Palazzi.

Many thanks to Adrienne Schmoeker and her countless teammates in city government for organizing open data week and believing in the power of mass collaboration.

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