Urban Fold

Database Nation: What Does it Mean for Planners?

Ken Snyder's picture

Reason magazine did a very provocative this month – for each of their 40,000 subscribers they printed a customized cover including an aerial photo of their house. The magazine headline started with the homeowner's name in big orange letters followed by the subtitle "They Know Where Your Are!" Click here to see the cover of the issue mailed to my neighbor – my house is 2 houses to the right.

On the inside cover, the Editor's Note includes several local facts embedded into the text "…as a telecommuter I don't envy your area's average commute of 27.14 minutes". Nick Gillespie concludes the piece by saying, "Living in a database nation raises innumerable privacy concerns. But it also makes life easier and more prosperous. We may have kissed privacy goodbye – and good riddance too."

So what does living in a database nation mean for planners? When I first started working in the field of decision support tools for planning I frequently quoted my boss saying "Armed with good information people will most often make good decisions." It was a good faith quote that highlighted the importance of information in shaping our communities. While I believe this, I'm not naive. The warning label on a pack of cigarettes is testimonial to the fact that people don’t always make choices that are in their best interest.

Nonetheless, access to data and tools for interpreting data are critical in today's world of planning. If we develop one way versus another, what impacts will our choices have on infrastructure costs, added pressures on our schools, tax revenue, time stuck in traffic, or the impacts of development on the environment? Database information and impact analysis tools can help us answer these questions and help us make better development decisions. Overall, information technology can help us know the place we are working with and how to develop it appropriately. Information technology also helps us build arguments for good development over bad development. Placed in the "right" hands, information technology can help communities define and defend a future that matches the core values and desires of the community.

There lies the crux of the issue: access to information. Seeing your own house on the cover of a magazine is both alarming and exciting. It's scary how much information on our lives is now accessible to others. But this information also makes it easier for the public and private sector to meet our needs. The information is out there and it's being used by the Wal-Marts and Starbucks of the world to make the case for business decisions everyday. Planners not only need access to much of this information but they also need to now how to analyze and use it. Partly to make more informed decisions. But also to level the playing field, and to make sure all sides understand the implications of land use/development decisions so the interests of our communities are represented and defended.

Ken Snyder is Executive Director of PlaceMatters


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