Rebuilding the Midwest from the Internet Up

Lyden Foust
Dec 5, 2017 · 6 min read

The Death of a Great American City — a 9 year old’s point of view

Once upon a time, you could group the midwest economy into three categories: Factories, Farms, and Other. Growing up in Richmond, Indiana, my family was in the “other” quadrant: tree farms and landscaping. Things were alright and we made enough to get by. Until one day, one of the three categories collapsed and then the rest bottomed out. I remember being young, hearing the Heinz and Belden factories weren’t doing so well. To this day I am not sure if they were driven out of town by strikes, or drawn out of town for cheaper labor. Either way, the factories near Richmond got out of there.

Folks talked pretty calmly about it at the time, but to be honest, things got real bad, real quick. At age nine I learned an economic principle. When jobs get up out of your town, the people get up out of your town too. What was once rows of middle class homes became rows of abandoned buildings. And when people aren’t living in buildings, they don’t buy your trees or get their landscaping done. No fun.

All these abandoned homes opened up a new opportunity in our area though. At the time, making meth was a novel thing, and our proximity to interstate 40 and interstate 70 made it really easy to ship supply. So, seemingly overnight, Richmond, once known as the “Rose city,” replaced flower exports with drug exports. Abandoned buildings became burnt down buildings, the amount of teeth per capita plummeted, and the “wanted” section of the newspaper expanded to the entire page.

This story is a microcosm from the perspective of a nine year old. What I didn’t realize is that this same story was repeated all over the midwest in any town or city reliant on factory jobs — which is all of them.

Barriers to Rebuilding The Midwest

Splitting my time between Detroit and Cincinnati has given me an interesting perspective. Driving up 75 I pass through Dayton and Toledo and see the abandoned buildings along the way. Most of our investors are from Chicago, and I am involved as a mentor for the Columbus smart city accelerator. Although I see abandoned buildings and poverty in every one of these towns, one thing I know to be true: each one of these places has a flame, and with intelligent cultivation, is ready to thrive.

But here is the thing. There is no silver bullet. In the past we could throw up factories, pay reasonable wages and create a thriving city. Not so today, this is only going to happen piece by piece. We can’t rely on government funding either — that stuff runs out and isn’t particularly efficient. Rebuilding the midwest can only be accomplished by a collective group of intelligent decisions.

But there two barriers in our way: information and courage. Lets deal with information first:


Currently, this is the information we have available on cities:

  1. Census Data
  2. Survey Data
  3. Intuition

All three of these have their place, but are limited. As of this writing, census data is seven years old. That is not good enough to make intelligent decisions today. That is why we bridge this gap with survey data. Survey data gives us psychographics, but as any good ethnographic researcher will tell you; “what people say is noise, what people do is gold”. We have people making business and economic decisions based on either old or corrupt data, likely both. So that leaves the last one, intuition. I generally think this one is the best of the three. But, the problem here is that you can’t prove or quantify intuition, so the powers that be have a hard time using intuition as a valid data point.

Altogether, using our current system results in the below conclusion on a place:

Abandoned buildings vs. Thriving community

Cities are growing faster than ever, and there has never before been a time when we needed unbiased, up to date, information in cities at scale this badly. We need to be able to put our ear to the ground and listen to the city. Fortunately, history has always had its own way of opening a door to a solution when it is needed most.

The language of cities

As it turns out, the city has been speaking for about eight years — and while nobody was listening, the answers to our questions accumulated in an untapped layer of data above cities. About two years ago, we discovered geotagged social media was rich with qualitative information (highly dimensional, as a data scientist would put it), and by combining multiple streams of this information at once, you can discern truth in a city in real time.

We have been supplying this data to companies such as Ford for about a year, but now it is time for step two in our long term vision: Deliver this information in a dashboard for understanding the living city. With this dashboard our vision is to empower site selectors, economic developers, and brands to collectively rebuild cities by making thousands of small intelligent location decisions.

You can drop a pin and see behavioral segments in a city.

This is important, because now we are quantifying the intuition that site selectors had. Instead of trying to sell your boss or a company on a site because it just “feels” like it is going to be the next big thing, we can now SHOW them the behavioral information that is missing in census data.

You can watch these change over time.

Pictured above: Mecca Bar — an offbeat art bar by our old office, you can see how word spread about Mecca sometime around ~ Sept. Coincidentally, Mecca is on a relatively undeveloped street in the OTR neighborhood and is likely a spark to ignite growth in the area.

This is particularly important to the Midwest because of how hard we were hit by the downturn. Let’s face it, we have scars. Unfortunately, census and survey data show the Midwest is still beat up, down and out. Walk the streets and you can tell this is not true, using Spatial data you can capture the velocity of how the city streets are changing. We believe this will give people the boldness and confidence to throw fuel on the fire and make the decision to locate where the puck is going, not where it has been.

You can draw a polygon and see relevant topics

Did you ever see the palantiri ball in Lord of the Rings? Yep, you can do that for real now. See what any community is talking about. A map of collective human interests.

Ok, now let’s talk about part two, courage.


Nothing truly great happens by doing the same thing every time. As a site selector and economic developer, you want to mitigate risk of choosing the wrong site. So you perform your due diligence. But the data is always going to suggest doing the same thing that has worked in the past.

That is why we need to rebuild cities from the internet up with a new source of data. Data that quantifies what was once intuition, that shows where the puck is going, and that gives crystal ball insight that you would have to be a local to know. The only way to step into the future is to show there is stable ground below.

If you are a site selector, a brand, or an economic developer — you wield the power to rebuild our cities. And if you want to go beyond static data to making your brand shine and city streets thrive, man have we got a tool for you.

Try out this dashboard for free today here:

Spatial AI

Stories from the ethnographers, engineers, and designers at Spatial.

Lyden Foust

Written by

Spatial AI

Stories from the ethnographers, engineers, and designers at Spatial.

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