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Environmental Studies

Charlie Cubeta uses data to help a struggling city
Charlie is an ES/Government major and an Economics minor

Posted July 31, 2012

Photo credit: Data Driven Detroit, Census 2000-2010 mapping tool

Last fall (2012), Charlie Cubeta ’13 traveled for four months with the study-abroad program, IHP: Cities in the 21st Century, visiting four far-flung cities: Detroit, Sao Paulo, Cape Town and Hanoi.

In Detroit, Cubeta was introduced to Kurt Metzger, “an experienced demographer and mini-celebrity among Detroit professionals,” Cubeta says, who directs a nonprofit called Data Driven Detroit. Inspired by Metzger’s mission, Cubeta received a fellowship from the Preston Public Interest Career Fund to work for “D3″ this summer. The Preston fellowship funds Bowdoin students who want to intern for an organization serving the disadvantaged. Cubeta, who is from Arlington, Mass, is a government and environmental studies major, and an economics minor. He answered a few questions recently about his summertime work.

Bowdoin Daily Sun: First off, can you describe Data Driven Detroit?

Charlie Cubeta: Data Driven Detroit (D3) is a nonprofit data collection, research and analysis firm [founded in 2009 under the leadership of Kurt Mezger]. D3 defines its own mission as “providing accessible, high-quality information and analysis to drive informed decision-making that strengthens communities in Southeast Michigan.” Metzger sought to create a “one stop shop” for accurate and reliable data, which has become especially important after the 2008 recession as large foundations have initiated projects to help Detroit and are seeking to invest their money most prudently.

BDS: What inspired you to work for them?

CC: Kurt … is a data guru, but he is firmly grounded in the reality of what the numbers show and don’t show, and I really respect that. D3’s mission appealed to me—democratizing information and informing community groups with up-to-date data seemed like important work to be doing in a city that has really struggled over the past 50 years. People often cite revealing statistics to show how far Detroit has fallen (e.g., Detroit’s population decreased 25% from 2000 to 2010) and I wanted to work with an organization that could use these data responsibly and proactively. I became interested in studying Detroit after taking an urban studies class with my advisor, Environmental Studies Senior Lecturer Jill Pearlman.

BDS: What are you doing for them this summer?

CC: With ArchGIS software, I am creating a series of reference maps of the 2010 Census for Detroit that will be publicly available online. So, I’m mapping all kinds of demographics and statistics—everything from housing vacancy rates to the percent of unmarried mothers. I’m hoping to have over 100 maps online by the end of the summer. In creating this series of maps, I stumbled into helping D3 actually develop its own graphic brand of maps, something I hope will somewhat be my legacy here. Mapping so much has also caused me to reflect a lot about what maps are in themselves and the way we use them to interpret the world. I’m also working on helping D3 provide data support to various clients, namely a neighborhood group that is seeking a multimillion dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

I was drawn to using maps because last summer [with a Psi Upsilon fellowship from Bowdoin] I lived at Bowdoin and worked in the Topsham Department of Planning and Development where I was using GIS to map recreational trail networks.

BDS: What’s been the most satisfying part about your experience so far?

CC: It’s great to be surrounded by a group of 20 urban analysts who love to talk about Detroit. I learn so much about the city just through casual conversations with my co-workers, and they are very willing to stop their work and offer me advice. I find that it’s easy to get caught up in the details of mapping—then I step back and reflect on the significance of something I create and the results can be pretty surprising. I hope that my maps might be a useful reference or spark someone’s interest in studying something that can benefit Detroit.

More broadly, I’m living in Detroit, which is an experience very different than living in Brunswick or any other urban area for that matter. It is an interesting time to live here—the city is doing some soul searching as it seeks a solid path for the future. The cliché you hear a lot is that “there is so much potential in the city.” The result is that people are considering a lot of progressive ideas—most notably urban farming. I find myself going back and forth on these ideas—a lot of them are exciting, but many are frustratingly naïve and fail to consider that Detroit is not a blank slate or a planner’s post-apocalyptic paradise—it is a major city with devoted residents and an ingrained history.

I’m not sure if it’s the low population density or the flatness, but I feel very an immense amount of freedom in this city—my favorite activity is taking long, meandering bike rides around the city with my roommates. I also volunteer weekly at a community bike shop and am playing on a neighborhood soccer team. Don’t believe what you hear in the media—there is a lot going on in Detroit. You just have to know where to find it.

BDS: What do you think you’ll take away from the internship that will help you back at Bowdoin and possibly later in your career?

CC: I’m learning how to manipulate data to most accurately tell the truth, which can be a surprisingly difficult task, and mastering it is a useful skill for any career path. I’m also learning how a network of nonprofits produces change in a city, which is valuable as I consider working in the nonprofit world after graduation. More immediately, I’m planning to write a thesis about Detroit with a strong mapping component. [He's leaning toward writing about the history of Detroit's neighborhoods as compared to other Rust Belt cities.] I’ll be starting work on that in the fall in with Prof. Pearlman. It’s a daunting project, but I’ll know exactly where to go if I have any data requests.

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"I’m learning how to manipulate data to most accurately tell the truth, which can be a surprisingly difficult task, and mastering it is a useful skill for any career path. I’m also learning how a network of nonprofits produces change in a city, which is valuable as I consider working in the nonprofit world after graduation."

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