Microsoft PowerMap and PowerView — Living Histories of Communities Across America
This blog was originally published on the Microsoft platform at this link, and is reprinted below.
By: Lourdes German
Fifty years ago the intellectual pioneer Jane Jacobs wrote in her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “designing a dream city is easy… rebuilding a living one takes imagination.” Those words capture the essential challenges faced by government leaders entrusted with managing how communities are built. The remarkable relevance of these words stayed with me over the past decade in my work with governments across America, and as I embarked on a research endeavor focused on how government leaders finance the infrastructure of communities and the role civic technology can play to lend transparency to that process.
The two protagonists at the center of this story are: a government leader and their community. Government leaders are charged with making decisions about how critical infrastructure (roads, bridges, schools) is built and paid for. Citizens see the fabric of their communities change over time but often lack an understanding of the process behind strategic decisions. This lack of transparency has heightened importance when a city declares bankruptcy, as occurred in Detroit, and an ethos of confusion over the magnitude of fiscal distress and future capital investment becomes tenable.
I asked myself – how could I develop a body of work that empowers communities and citizens to bridge the information gap with each other? I answered that question by writing a book that explains how communities finance America. It presents an inside view of the decision-making process when leaders finance and build projects, and ways to understand the fragmented data points for communities as financial actors. Fueled by my desire for this book to be a living resource, I developed technology simulations, powered by Microsoft, that place the reader in the seat of a government leader to experience that process.
The technology simulations offer dynamic visualizations of communities as engines of growth and change. For example, the following PowerMap® simulation presents public projects financed in communities, their funding source, and the community’s fiscal profile (i.e. pensions, taxes, expenses, debt):
The time-lapsed trajectory presents a community as a market participant, visualizing fiscal hotspots, disinvestment, impending challenges, revenues, credit quality, and other elements alongside its peers. The PowerView® simulations I developed complement that; by providing a single screen that communicates the story of a community’s infrastructure financing history for a ten year horizon:
The simulations have the potential to be living histories of communities across America. My goal is to provide the simulations as stand-alone resources that governments can use to transform the static narrative of their community in dynamic ways. With these tools communities will be empowered to share their discoveries with each other, present how they make decisions to meet critical needs, and engage citizens in a dialogue around their trajectory of change.
These resources have the potential to dissolve information divides that appear insurmountable and allow remarkable results to occur: citizens can learn about the foundation of their communities; governments can learn from each other; and strategic government finance policy decisions can be informed by a new perspective. In this way, civic technology can engender government transparency globally, allowing for a highly fragmented landscape of data and information to be transformed.