Using Crowdsourcing Applications to Interpret and Build More Equitable Cities

On this episode of EJBTalks, Stuart Shapiro welcomes Will Payne, the newest faculty member in our Urban Planning Program. With urban planning moving beyond the focus on the physical form, economic functions, and social impacts of the urban environment, they discuss Professor Payne’s research on crowdsourcing applications, which provide large amounts of data from consumers that can drive real change in cities. Having recently completed his dissertation in this area, Professor Payne talks about how early “star” rating systems such as New York’s Zagat Survey have morphed into today’s crowd-sourcing applications including Yelp and Nextdoor. These social media tools have, in turn, become predictors of gentrification, showing how technology, food, culture, politics, and more are intertwined with housing issues. They can also be used to understand how people react and behave in response to these issues. He also explains that these tools exist to solve real problems, enabling planners to study cities and what people really think by providing new and better access to spatial data, and in the right hands, they can be used to create more equitable cities that serve the needs of everyone. 

Stuart Shapiro
Welcome to EJB Talks. I’m Stuart Shapiro, the Associate Dean of Faculty at the Bloustein School, and the purpose of this podcast is to talk with my colleagues and our alumni about policy, planning, and health; the interaction between these issues and how they affect people in New Jersey, the United States, and the world.

We continue to talk with our new faculty to start this second season of EJB Talks. Today, I’m speaking with Professor Will Payne, who is among our newest faculty and is part of our nationally-ranked urban planning program, Professor Payne, welcome.

Will Payne
Thank you so much for having me.

Stuart Shapiro
So you just joined us, you just finished your dissertation. And that dissertation looks at consumer rating services, which, for those of us that are a bit older, remember Zagats, the restaurant reviews in the old media. And people today would be more familiar with Yelp. How did you get interested in this subject, in this area?

Will Payne
Yeah, you know, it seems like it might be kind of an unusual topic or something that kind of leaps from the every day into more academic theoretical interest. But I have to say, that it was something that I started to notice in the world around me. And then it kind of started to scratch that itch and start exploring, you know, what sort of work had been done.

So maybe I’ll back up and say, you know, my undergraduate degree was in the humanities. I was studying history and literature, actually with a focus on 19th century German intellectual history and its interpretation in the United States. So quite different you might guess. But at the same time, I was taking graduate seminars in landscape architecture and in planning, looking at cities as both built environments and also as kind of cybernetic self-regulating systems. And so this was kind of in the back of my mind. But I didn’t go straight through to academia. After graduating, I worked as a documentary filmmaker and a producer in San Francisco, for Current TV. So I’m not sure, are you familiar with Current TV at all?

Stuart Shapiro
I’ve heard of it, but I don’t know much.

Will Payne
Sure. So it was–it no longer exists–it was a short-form television network founded by former Vice President Al Gore. And it essentially tried to combine MTV, proto-YouTube — it actually predated YouTube a little bit–and PBS, I would say. It was trying to get young people interested in issues of sustainability, politics, art, culture, with user-generated content with videos that people would upload to the internet, vote on, and then choose what would go on television. So is this a very interesting crossover between….I mean, I guess cable television is not necessarily old media, but maybe for my generation, it feels like old media… (laughing)

Stuart Shapiro
Right.

Will Payne
…with this new kind of web 2.0 user-generated content. So you know, I moved to the Bay Area from the East Coast. I’m actually from the Northeast. And I was living out there and I really had a front-row seat to the rise of this kind of social media, of user-generated content, crowdsourcing. And as a geographer, you know, geo-located media became more and more important. So the idea of that specific social media utterances, tweets, the like, would have a location associated with them. And at the same time, I was living in the Mission District, which you know, now as then, it’s been a kind of hotbed of gentrification since at least the 1980s. And I was starting to see the ways that technology, food, culture, and housing were all sort of intertwined.

So to give you one example, I knew there was a condominium that was given the nickname “The Gentrification Station,” kind of self ironically. There was a group of Google engineers living right off of Mission Street, in a, you know, fairly mixed-income, fairly Hispanic immigrant community. And across the street from them, there is a restaurant called Mission Street Food, that later kind of birthed Mission Chinese Food and expanded to New York. But at that moment, they took essentially a taco truck and were doing sort of upscale junk food essentially, from that location. But it was this moving truck. And they were using things like Twitter to say, “We’re going to be at this corner at this time. We’re going to be over here.”

And at the same time, Yelp had just started, so people were starting to get more into these local reviews. And I was seeing that this was a new way of associating data with urban space around amenities. So that was when I started to see “Oh, there’s something going on here.” And I need more of a toolkit rooted in the academy to kind of understand these relationships further. So that’s when I started the Ph.D. process in geography at UC Berkeley and continued along that path, you know, for the following years. And then also expanding into the kind of GIS and spatial data science methodology area as well.

Stuart Shapiro
So you’ve teased this a little bit, but I’d like to make it more explicit, particularly for people that might come and study or get a master’s degree here. What does all this have to do with urban planning?

Will Payne
That’s a great question. And I think one of the fun things for me again, and maybe it’s my historical training, is looking back at earlier kind of, constellations of the built environment and informational environment and seeing these similar themes replaying. So at some point with a dissertation, you always have to give yourself a start and end date. Otherwise, you could go forever. The reports and time where I was looking at, you know, the first Guidebook to the Grand Tour in Europe. So a woman named Mariana Stark, a kind of upper-middle-class British woman, invented the Star rating, actually, in going around Europe. And, you know, putting different cultural attractions, giving them stars. But what’s interesting, you know, and kind of has a resonance today, is that her innovation was, you know, ruthlessly copied by the Baedeker family. And then they turned it into this huge business, but she doesn’t really get a lot of credit.

So I was looking at these kinds of past ways of understanding the city as more than just, you know, economic agglomerations, but also sites of display, cultural sorting, cultural fusions. And figuring out “Well, how do individuals make sense of the city? How do they, how do they make their way through it, especially in a kind of tourist sense?” When you’re not familiar, you’re not purely in one community. And I’d say another big influence early on was looking at urban sociologist Sharon Zukin’s work on consumption and gentrification. So, looking at third spaces, like restaurants and cafes, small retail stores, and really seeing these as kind of a dialectic where they’re both an indicator that a neighborhood is changing. If you see a fancy coffee shop in a neighborhood, that’s a sense that, “Okay, this might have a slightly different clientele than 10 to 20 years ago.” But that these are also driving forces in that change. They become marketable amenities for realtors, for developers, for landlords. And so, taking that kind of focus on that interconnection. But then also looking at the shifting affordances of different informational technologies. So what means do consumers have to discover these places, share them, and then their spatial context relationships?

Stuart Shapiro
So it helps predict gentrification and also helps us understand how people react and behave in response to it.

Will Payne
Exactly. And it’s changed quite a bit, both in quantity and quality over the years. And so, doing some of this historical work on the Zagat survey, it was a really interesting moment, kind of figuring out that there’s a specific dinner. So Tim and Nina Zagat were, you know, fairly elite lawyers, you know, they met at Yale Law School, Nina was one of the first female students there in the 1960’s. And essentially, they were these gourmets in New York, they had all these friends in the legal, banking, the art world, very connected people, very social. And they were all grumbling about how the New York Times was not producing reviews fast enough. There was this whole kind of, post-industrial professional services class, people like Saskia Sassen have written very compellingly about that shift in New York.

And these people, you know…. eating out was not just a personal interest, it was also a business need, it was advancing their careers. And they felt that the existing informational infrastructure wasn’t good enough. So this idea of having their friends fill out surveys, which is the methodology that they pioneered, that you can draw a direct line to Yelp today. The idea that amateurs could just give their opinions and in aggregate, you know, the statistical aggregation would produce this kind of added value. That was their response. It’s actually interesting talking in election season because one of the things that Tim points to behind this idea was his experience working on the Lyndon Johnson campaign, the presidential campaign in opinion polling. So there was this way that kind of social science and policy and political research, then kind of inform the personal lives of these very educated, sort of bureaucrats essentially. And so how does that professional and personal life start to bleed into each other and then start to affect the actual built form of the city.

Stuart Shapiro
That’s interesting. And of course, now we have, you know, data on–and we’ll live through this on election night–data on these presidential preferences and on demographic information and such, that are so finely grained that we can understand what’s happening at a much deeper level in elections as well.

Will Payne
Absolutely.

Stuart Shapiro
Let me turn. There was an aspect of your dissertation, I found particularly fascinating about how the content moderation policies of Yelp and other online rating services really can become quite political. And, you know, when I go and I review a restaurant, I don’t think at all that this is a political action that I’m taking, and I’m pretty politically attuned. How does this happen? And what are the implications of it?

Will Payne
Yeah, I’m glad you asked about this, because it’s actually you know, it’s kind of latent in the dissertation. But I think this is a topic I’d like to explore more in the coming years, especially seeing the way that in the broader culture, this kind of everything is in the list of the political. You know, we’re speaking in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic, and the way that reactions to, whether or not a waiter tells you to put a mask on, that becomes now fair game for people in these local reviews.

But I think the starting point to really understand this, is that none of these platforms operate in a vacuum. And so if you look at… so one example of that’s not about politics, but it’s kind of analogous if you think about how do you write something. That’s changed dramatically from say, the 1970s to the present. If you think about the gold standard, before the Zagat guide, something like the Michelin Guide. And that’s really based on this kind of absolute quality, sort of like the hotel stars where you have to have certain things and certain measurements on an absolute scale, to get these higher star counts. You have to have a great wine cellar. You have to have, you know, a maître d’ taking you to the table. And that really starts to fall apart gradually. And then I see where it really falls apart, is in the kind of post-Amazon years where there’s this reviewing culture that we’re accustomed to that is completely floating in space.

You know, if I rate a pencil sharpener on Amazon a five and I rate, you know, a fine carpet a four, I’m not saying that the pencil sharpener is better than the carpet, I’m saying, it’s good at being a pencil sharpener. And that’s migrated out to restaurant reviewing practices. And it’s actually something that I see sort of gamed in the ways that local businesses, especially in kind of smaller markets … you know, I’m an academic. Before COVID, at least I traveled quite a bit for conferences and talks. And when you go to smaller cities; I was in Colorado Springs. And the way that the coffee shops there, and the donut shops and the taco trucks were set up to optimize for this kind of floating ranking. It’s like, I could open a donut place and get five out of five stars and attract hundreds of people. Why would I open a fine dining restaurant? What’s the marginal return, and then given what we know about these businesses and the kind of later inputs, you sort of see the way that that review in practice then has a feedback effect on actual business decisions.

And I think the political aspect is similar. So if you look at techniques like brigading, so a lot of internet users all kind of joining forces to target and harass, you see that start in places like the Chans, 4chan, 8chan, etc. You see it in Reddit. And that’s really migrated over to other places where they wouldn’t have existed before. So Facebook, Twitter, and even a place like Yelp. So you can see when there’s outrage about maybe a conservative media personality gets booed at a restaurant, and then all of a sudden, hundreds of angry trolls, if you will, flood that page with negative reviews. So I think it puts places like Yelp in an interesting position where they’re trying to ensure that what they have on the page reflects what they call a real consumer experience. But that’s clearly not, you know, that’s not set in stone. (laughing) That’s not on, Moses’s tablets. That’s open to interpretation and dispute. And so things like incidents of racism, you know. Yelp has started to take a bit more of a stand on racism by staff or owners of a restaurant. Making sure that that is not kind of bracketed out. But things are all sort of open to contestation, and I see that that’s where we’re at right now.

Stuart Shapiro
I mean, so our restaurants and our books, and the reviews of them are becoming polarized just as the rest of us are?

Will Payne
Yeah, exactly. And I think there are automated solutions, which, you know, I’ve also done some work on the service Nextdoor, the local social network. And, you know, they have this famous solution where… and it’s actually funny, I looked at the code that was driving their page. And when you went to post something, it would check your post. And it will check it against a list called “racewords.JSON.” So some poor engineer at Nextdoor had to come up with all of these words that are associated with racist or hate speech, and then put it in a file that then the software would say, “ooh, wait a second, we think you used a race word, we’re going to put you in a different flow,” where we say; Are you sure you want to post that? Can you post in a different way? Can you post additional details? But again, you know, that sort of algorithmic approach has some benefits in keeping costs low. But it also, it’s not perfect, and it can miss a lot of nuance in actual human speech and expression.

Stuart Shapiro
So what’s the future of using these techniques, these data sources, to think about urban planning issues? What are some other examples of where we might be able to use this for urban planners of the future?

Will Payne
Yeah, well, I think so far, I’ve mentioned some of these kinds of negative externalities, so things like gentrification or political hate speech. But I think it’s worth remembering that these tools exist to solve real problems. And I always think about, for example, if I have dietary restrictions, or if I’m a vegan in 2020, I’m in a better world than I am in 2000, or 1980. You know, part of that is this ability to kind of find things that work for me. Another thing you see is with accessibility, so, and both Google and Yelp have put a lot of stock behind this and their PR efforts. But I think there is a kind of kernel of, I want to know if there’s a ramp, if I can get into the building. I want to know if there is going to be an all-gender restroom.

So if I can have that information available before I venture out into the world, this is a way that kind of better access to spatial data can result in more equitable cities that serve the needs of everyone. And I think this user-generated model, because of the lower labor costs, because it’s kind of that cybernetic idea of picking up on changes in information very sensitively, it has its drawbacks. But I think it also enables us to kind of both study the city in a new way, but also learn from it in potentially, a more sensitive way, in a more kind of real-time feedback to the city.

Stuart Shapiro
I’m glad you pointed that out. Because we do spend so much time worrying about the negative implications. I mean, just yesterday, Google, the Department of Justice went after Google for antitrust. That’s going to drag out over a 10 year period or so. But we worry about, you know, the power of Google, the power of Amazon. We worry about privacy. And those are all legitimate fears. But in doing that, we tend to forget a lot about how much, how many more doors these technology platforms have opened up. And many of those doors can be in the service of social justice, equality, etc. I mean, they don’t have to be, but they certainly have that potential.

Will Payne
Yeah if you look at, even within academia, the remote conference model, the remote talks. I think there was a lot of panic early on about how do we adapt to COVID. But what we’ve seen in a lot of cases is that people who had issues with mobility, graduate students, people with kids, people with fixed resources. This enables you to be part of scholarly conversations around the world. So I think there’s that similar, finding that kernel of what do we preserve after we hopefully turn the corner on this pandemic? And I would hope that that’s one of the issues.

I should mention that I think I was wrapping up the dissertation in the early stages of the pandemic. And I found myself, my initial kind of conclusion was, wow, these technologies are only growing in importance. They’re being incorporated into augmented reality with voice assistance. And this becomes an ever greater part of this kind of technology, real estate, and consumption sort of Nexus. And COVID is really called a few of those linkages into question, if not forever, at least in the short term. So, Yelp laid off 17% of their employees in April and furloughed quite a few more, and the revenue that… you know, if you think about how these companies make money, it’s advertising from small businesses. And as small businesses continue to suffer without real relief from the federal government, this sort of parasitic layer on top of that, professional services for these local business owners are also hurting. And I think some of the kind of grandstanding and exciting trends in some of these areas might be delayed by a few years based on what we would have seen in say, January or February.

Stuart Shapiro
That’s possible. On the other hand, where would small businesses be if they didn’t have Amazon as a platform to sell on as well right now?

Will Payne
Right. And Yelp to tell people, and Google Maps and Yelp to tell people, this business is open doing takeout, this one has outdoor seating, you can contact us directly.

Stuart Shapiro
Yes, that’s exactly right.

Will Payne
So again, that’s kind of the flip side here, where, you know, the revenue is down. But can you imagine if we had this pandemic in 1980?

Stuart Shapiro
Right!

Will Payne
And people thinking, why would I go to a restaurant right now? And rather than say, Oh, actually, I can get this really good take out, a pre-cooked meal for two people. I can… places here in Highland Park, New Jersey, are pivoting to groceries and fine coffee beans. Or finding other ways to make up that revenue. And I think having that direct connection to your customers, hopefully, is giving them a lifeline in the absence of the federal government doing their job, to be quite honest.

Stuart Shapiro
Yes. Yeah, that’s exactly right. And we could go off on a tangent on creative destruction here, but we are running out of time. Can you, let me wrap up by asking you sort of, where are you going now with your research? What questions do you plan on looking at?

Will Payne
Yeah, so I think we touched on a few of those. So I think, seeing what the future of the dissertation research is, whether that’s a book, whether it’s a series of articles, exploring this political speech angle a little bit more. I have a presentation coming up in the early part of 2021, and a paper coming out of that. And then I think there’s sort of a question mark on to what extent the changes that I’ve witnessed already with COVID, and local reviews, to what extent that continues forward. So I think that’s kind of an open site. And then there’s this whole other track of my research that’s on methodological experimentation, kind of nonlinear distance mapping, spatial data science. This also relates back to some of my teaching at the Bloustein School as well in GIS and mapping. So I think there’s a lot of exciting paths to go down and honestly with two under-fives in the home and being on a brand new coast, I think there’s no shortage of things to do. Let me put it that way.

Stuart Shapiro
For sure. Well, as you do all that stuff, we’ll have you back on here to discuss it. Thank you so much for coming on today.

Will Payne
All right. Thank you, Stuart. Appreciate it.

Stuart Shapiro
Also a big thank you to our production team, Amy Cobb and Karyn Olsen. We’ll be back next week with another talk, I believe the last in this series of our new faculty members at the Bloustein School. Until then, stay safe.