Mike Shields

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Meet the Data Consultant



Tell us about yourself.

I was born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia and I received my B.A. in Sociology and Anthropology at Elizabethtown College near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I was originally studying to become an archaeologist; I even participated in a few historic and prehistoric digs. I committed to Sociology after a social research and statistics coarse-set where we partnered with a local museum to evaluate their programming. I learned how effective applied social research can be and it ignited a passion for using my research skills to benefit others. This passion led me to pursue graduate degrees in Sociology at Northeastern University. I received my M.A. in 2014 and I’m on track to complete my dissertation by summer’s end. For my dissertation, I’m uncovering the neighborhood-level characteristics of gentrification using publicly available data. I’ve always been interested in cities and urban research questions and this dissertation hits all those notes. I admit, though, I still enjoy reading about archeological excavations and forensics; I still have a plaster skull replica on my bookshelf that my girlfriend hates.


You’re working on your dissertation, how is that going?

The dissertation process is long and harrowing, but in a good way. For my dissertation, I’m using publicly available data sources, like property assessment records and building permits, to longitudinally measure the neighborhood characteristics associated with gentrification. Gentrification is a hot topic right now, but I think the politics surrounding it are distracting us from understanding what it is and how it happens. There seems to be two camps: those who believe it’s an absolute negative since it causes displacement and those who see it as an absolute positive because it spurs economic revival. I argue that we need to strip away the politics of gentrification and focus on identifying how it physically manifests. Sometimes I think we forget that displacement and economic revival occur sans gentrification. Before we can react to it, we need to first solve the problem of identifying it. Right now, we are stuck in the issue of “we only know it when we see it”.


How did you first get involved with BARI?

I’ve been with BARI for just about two years. I had my first run-in with BARI while I was in a GIS course. I was working with the City of Boston’s 311 data for a project and I was encouraged to speak with Dan O’Brien – who at that point was labeled the “311 guru” by unofficial sources. I met with him and discussed my project because I was looking for sources for my policy write-up, but we also talked at length about our research interests and BARI. We kept in touch, and – a few months later – there was a job announcement from BARI requesting a research assistant. I applied and, at the interview, Dan remarked that he wasn’t surprised I was there – considering our previous discussion. Eventually, I received an official email asking me to join the team and I was ecstatic! BARI has been such an indescribable experience for me since it allows me to pursue my passion as a living. I often joke with Dan that I wish I found BARI much earlier in my graduate school career.


Can you tell us a little bit about the Data Consultant role, and how it came to be?

The Data Consultant role was made possible through the generosity of the Herman & Frieda L. Miller Foundation. BARI has always seen itself as a research resource for local community groups and individuals wanting to know more about Boston’s social landscape. In this role we advertise our Boston Data Portal which is composed of two resources: our Boston Research Map and our Dataverse page. The Boston Research Map is an interactive visualization tool that displays a wealth of social, demographic, and economic characteristics from a variety of sources, while the Dataverse page hosts the cleaned datasets themselves. We also offer community trainings to advertise the Boston Data Portal and train our participants in effectively using it for their own purposes. We noticed, however, there was a greater need among community organizations for more detailed information on data resources and social research methodologies. We created the Data Consultant position to bridge this gap; it is an extra resource for community organizations in need of more detailed information or one-on-one assistance.


What types of requests do you get as the Data Consultant?

The majority of questions are about data resource availability. Each organization and individual want to know if data exist for their specific research questions. It’s been very easy to fulfill most of these requests. I’ve spent numerous years working on different projects that used municipal, environmental, educational, and medical data resources so I’ve I learned where to go for most types of data. I’ve also brought a few of the requests to BARI’s research team who are an excellent source of expertise. Their diverse interests and skillsets collectively make them an invaluable source of knowledge. They are always very excited to help our community participants as well.


Is there somewhere people can go for more information?

Anyone who would like a data consultation can email with the phrase “Data Consultant” in the subject. I’d be happy to set up a call, meet in person, or converse via email. Anyone who wants to hear more about my research can email me at

Published On: May 7, 2018