How Bad Data Caused The Fires That Leveled The Bronx In The 1970s

How Bad Data Caused the Fires That Leveled The Bronx in the 1970s

"The Bronx is burning." Throughout the 1970s, hundreds of buildings went up in flames in New York City's poorest neighbourhoods. But nowhere were the fires more prevalent than The Bronx, where on a single night in July 1977, 400 blazes were raging. And flawed urban planning data was to blame.

The photos and films from the decade show a city that looks as if it was bombed in some invisible war. By 1980 seven census tracts had lost 97 per cent of their buildings. Blocks and blocks of blackened rubble, burned-up cars, neighbourhoods flattened from the inside out. The only way you even know it's New York City and not post-World War II Europe is when the graffiti-covered subway rolls through the frame.

On this week's What's the Point podcast over at FiveThirtyEight, Jody Avirgan sits down with Joe Flood, an author who wrote an incredible book about this period in NYC history, the famous phrase which defined the era, and how science nearly obliterated the borough.

It turns out that the fires kept burning in The Bronx because of a misguided data-driven approach to improving firefighting efficiency:

With the help of the Rand Corp., the city tried to measure fire response times, identify redundancies in service, and close or re-allocate fire stations accordingly. What resulted, though, was a perfect storm of bad data: The methodology was flawed, the analysis was rife with biases, and the results were interpreted in a way that stacked the deck against poorer neighbourhoods. The slower response times allowed smaller fires to rage uncontrolled in the city's most vulnerable communities.

While this is shocking, it's not surprising. Many bad urban planning decisions at the time leaned heavily on improperly collected data, which politicians used to clear slums in favour of housing projects or funnel freeways through historic neighbourhoods. Flood's book provides a fascinating window into the way data scientists have changed the way they analyse cities, hopefully for the better.

Listen to the whole podcast here or over at iTunes and check out other episodes as well.

[What's the Point/FiveThirtyEight]

Top image: Firemen battle flames at a store in the Bronx borough of New York/AP Photo