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“Seeing” Neighborhoods through “Big” Data

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Figure. The distribution of local investment, measured by additions and renovations identified from building permit applications.

Modern administrative data—from 311 and 911 calls to building permit applications to Tweets—offer a detailed view of events and conditions across the city. BARI and the City of Boston have sought to capitalize on this opportunity by developing methodologies that translate these data into ecometrics, or measures of the physical and social characteristics of neighborhoods. This “big data” approach to a classic methodology has the potential to be more precise and cheaper than traditional survey and observational protocols.

This projected has generated an extended library of ecometrics, including measures of: “broken windows,” or physical disorder, and civic engagement from 311 reports; social disorder and crime and medical emergencies from 911 calls; and growth and investment from building permits.


Dan O’Brien (Northeastern University)*, Robert J. Sampson (Harvard University), Christopher Winship (Harvard University). *-Contact:

Data Products:

All ecometrics are available through BostonMap. They can also be downloaded with documentation from the Boston Data Portal, organized by source data set (e.g., 311, building permits).


  1. O’Brien, D.T., Sampson, R.J., Winship, C. 2015. Ecometrics in the age of big data: Measuring and assessing “broken windows” using administrative records. Sociological Methodology, 45: 101-147.
  2. O’Brien, D.T., Montgomery, B. 2015. The other side of the broken window: A methodology that translates building permits into an ecometric of investment by community members. American Journal of Community Psychology, 55: 25-36.
  3. O’Brien, D.T., Sampson, R.J. 2015. Public and Private Spheres of Neighborhood Disorder: Assessing Pathways to Violence Using Large-Scale Digital Records. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 52: 486-510.