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Can analytics, new survey, bolster Buffalo's future?

Analytics – the process of reaching the best, most realistic decision based on an analysis of data – has been used in recent years to try to give sports teams, businesses and Web designers an edge on the competition.

What about communities?

That’s the logic James Quinn has brought into a volunteer internship during the last 18 months with the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo.

Quinn, 24, of the Town of Tonawanda, a Kenmore East alum who holds a bachelor’s of sociology from Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa., and has put together a regional survey that looks to measure the health, neighborliness, civic engagement and personal beliefs of the Buffalo region.

His goal is to break down the survey results by ZIP code to sift out the best practices when it comes to the region’s “social capital” – raising the awareness of what makes Buffalo tick best.

“If I can help Buffalo reach it’s potential, that would be great,” said Quinn, who also works with data at his full-time job with Bureau Veritas, a consumer products testing company in Amherst. “I believe if we measure the right things, ask the right questions, we can be more efficient with our policy decisions, our urban planning and architectural plans for rebuilding Buffalo.”

Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Montreal are among the short list of cities that already have started using analytics to measure their strengths and weaknesses, helping them find ways to play to what’s best in their regions while working on their shortcomings.

Recent stories from IBM and Harvard Business Review have begun to explain how cities are using “big data” to improve public health, and a meetup group gathered last month at city hall in Austin, Texas, to discuss ways analytics can be used to develop the “Smart Cities” of the future.

James Quinn hopes his survey helps lift his hometown region.

James Quinn hopes his survey helps lift his hometown region.

Quinn hopes Buffalo will start to tackle a similar strategy, and that his survey will be the launching point.

If you live anywhere in Western New York, you can take the survey through Sept. 30 at

Q. What is social capital?

The features of social life, networks, norms and trusts that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives. When you talk about business, or democracy for that matter, it works better when people are engaged and having a dialogue. You have all your equal voices working together for one objective. In a business, that might mean everyone working together for a healthier workplace or a profit. In government and nonprofits, especially, you need people working together. You can’t have any mistrust. So you want to established connections.

Social capital has never been measured in Buffalo. It’s been measured across the country by a Harvard professor, Dr. Robert Putman (professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of “Bowling Alone”) ... but it’s never been managed. It’s something that can help us approach almost all of our issues: chronic poverty, health and a more efficient democracy, which couldn’t be needed more today.

Q. What are some of the key questions in the survey?

It is broken down into several parts. One of them is health. We’re looking at healthy behaviors: Are you getting the daily recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables? Are you exercising on a daily basis or how many times a week? Do you have access to your doctor or a grocery store that has good food? Are you in the vicinity of parks. Does a community have walkable streets and sidewalks? Do you meet regularly with others? Spend time at others’ houses? Do you feel that if you were in need that you could depend on an acquaintance for help? We are looking to see what communities need most. I very much expect to find different neighborhoods in different ways. There’s not a lot of racial trust in a neighborhood, so we’re going to want to address that with our local nonprofits and governments. We’re basically asking the questions, “What’s going on in the neighborhood? How can we make it better, healthier, safer for citizens?”

Q. After that, how is this material going to be used?

Cities with open data – so the right people can be using analytics and asking the right questions – tend to do better. I’m breaking down each neighborhood by ZIP code. Eventually, I would like to have Erie County mapped out in terms of social capital. I would like to identify the neighborhoods with the most challenges, so they can be addressed. I want to also examine when I find a neighborhood with strong social capital, what’s making it work? You’re definitely going to find a contrast between, say, the Elmwood Village and Utica Street on the East Side. You can compare and contrast what’s working and what’s not.

Q. When you talk about community development, you’re using the broadest terms, right?

Yes. That could be establishing public transportation. That could be working with a small immigrant and refugee population on trust and access to health information. It could help tackle some of our most chronic poverty. Buffalo is a city with a lot of that. It’s a city quite segregated and I’d like to help address those issues. A recent figure I saw in a survey by the Partnership of the Public Good is that 65 percent of those in the greater Buffalo area are overweight or obese. That’s a pretty startling statistic, so there’s certainly a need to establish networks with healthy norms and behaviors so we can reinforce ways citizens can eat right and manage chronic conditions like diabetes. When you have a network that supports you and your pursuit to be healthy, ultimately you’re going to be healthier and more successful.

Q. What have you taken so far from the data?

I haven’t done too much with the data but am finding it correlates with some themes, such as healthier communities have walkable sidewalks. They’re able to bike for their basic needs. They’re friendlier and trustworthy. And those folks tend to be healthier and more economically prosperous – and happier in general.


Twitter: @BNrefresh; @ScottBScanlon

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