Starting this fall, the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs (SPPUA) at Northeastern University officially became the administrative home for the Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI), an interuniversity partnership that produces original urban research with an emphasis on novel digital data.
Launched in 2011 at the Academic Ventures program of Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, BARI focuses on three major areas of activity: Pursuing core research-policy partnerships and projects; developing the Boston Data Portal; and convening and supporting Boston’s civic data ecosystem.
According to SPPUA Director Matthias Ruth, BARI and the School’s research centers and labs—the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, Resilient Cities Lab and the Social Impact Lab—will have important roles in generating insights and actionable strategies that solve pressing social, economic and environmental challenges in Boston and around the world.
“Aligning BARI’s research and convening functions more closely with the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs enables us all to more effectively leverage our collective intellectual resources and networks and to bring cutting edge data analytics to bear on issues of relevance to the region,” Ruth said. “The School’s degree and certificate programs in urban informatics and data analytics, for example, will offer the educational backbone for a new generation of analysts in the region.”
As part of the initiative’s transition to Northeastern, Assistant Professor Dan O’Brien became co-director of BARI along with Robert J. Sampson and Christopher Winship of the Department of Sociology at Harvard University.
Here, O’Brien delves into BARI’s ongoing research projects and focus on “inter-sectoral collaboration,” his goals for the initiative, and how the transition to Northeastern creates a synergy between BARI’s work and the work of other programs in the Policy School.
Q: What distinguishes BARI from other research centers and labs?
A: BARI has two distinguishing characteristics, one is the kind of projects we pursue, and the other is how we construct and pursue them. Towards the former, one of our main missions is to leverage modern digital data (what some might call ‘big’ data) and technology for urban research, policy and practice. While there are centers that focus on data, and others that focus on urban issues, we specialize on their intersection and the potential they create not only for advancing scholarship but also for broader public impacts.
The way we do this work is also distinctive. We believe that, because this area offers such a wide range of opportunities, it requires a broad interdisciplinary approach that welcomes collaboration across universities and sectors. For this reason, we partner closely with faculty and centers at six different local universities, including Northeastern, Harvard, Boston and Tufts Universities, UMass Boston, and Emerson College, and public officials at municipal, state and regional agencies.
Q: What projects at BARI currently excite you and why?
A: In the coming year there are three projects that I find particularly exciting. The first is a new NSF grant that BARI received this summer to continue building the infrastructure for our Boston Data Portal and the data-sharing relationships around it. This project will further the types of data that we host, including the expansion into various types of social media data. It will also make it possible for us to receive data from partners in real-time. Versions of many datasets will be made publicly available for use by other researchers, university courses, policymakers, and community members.
The second is a project led by professor Ryan Qi Wang, a new arrival in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northeastern University and BARI’s associate director of research in social media. Professor Wang has been using geo-tagged Twitter data to examine patterns of mobility in the city surrounding race and class. Going beyond residential segregation, he has been generating some striking examples of differences regarding which parts of the city people of different races visit.
Last is an effort around ‘Problem Properties.’ Historically, urban science has focused on neighborhood-level patterns, but novel digital data has the precision to allow us to study smaller units of analysis, and to wonder what are the dynamics of individual buildings. The potential questions are diverse, from questions of concentrations of crime or medical emergencies, to localized trends in gentrification.
Q: How will BARI translate its research efforts to policymakers and the community?
A: Nearly every BARI project brings together researchers, policymakers and practitioners around topics of common interest. This focus on inter-sectoral collaboration means that all new discoveries have the potential to be translated into innovations in policy and practice. We also stimulate such conversations through workshops, panels and other events. By publishing our data on the Boston Data Portal, especially the interactive BostonMap, we make the data available for policymakers, practitioners and community organizations to better understand and advocate for their communities.
Q: What are your goals for BARI now that its administrative home is SPPUA? And how will day-to-day operations change?
A: SPPUA is the ideal place for BARI to grow and thrive in the coming years. There is much synergy between our work and the work of other programs in the School—the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy and the new masters and certificate programs in urban informatics are two examples of efforts that provide natural opportunities for collaboration and education, respectively. More generally, Northeastern University’s dedication to innovation fits perfectly with BARI’s mission to probe the frontiers of urban science and policy in the digital age.
Q: You mentioned the synergy between BARI’s work and the work of other programs in the School. What do you see as the role BARI will play in the M.S. in Urban Informatics and the Graduate Certificates in Data Analytics and Urban Informatics?
A: BARI provides a natural opportunity for students in the urban informatics and data analytics programs to participate in data projects that have the potential to contribute to both research and policy. Already, students in these programs are learning from datasets stored in the Boston Data Portal, and in the coming semesters we will be identifying data-oriented capstone projects that involve partnering with local agencies and nonprofits with data-related problems. There are also opportunities for students to work directly with BARI on the construction of the Data Portal and the pursuit of original research, or by participating or volunteering at our events.
Become involved: Are you a faculty member with urban-research policy projects or ideas you’d like to pursue? Are you a student who would like to participate in ongoing research projects at BARI? Contact Assistant Professor Dan O’Brien at email@example.com, or 617-373-8900.
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