What big data can tell us about our small island.
Alan Worden can tell you how many people were on Nantucket at any given hour last year. He knows which summer visitors tend to go to Madaket Beach and which prefer ‘Sconset. He knows how much trash the island produces, how the traffic flows, and where visitors come from throughout the year. Above all, Alan Worden might just have an answer to the most confounding question that has long plagued Nantucketers: How many people actually live on the island?
“Nantucket is like Disney World,” Worden says. “The gates open at 8 o’clock and somebody is sitting there with a clicker. When someone comes into Disney World, they get a click. Similarly, if you’re coming to Nantucket, you’re coming by boat or by plane — that’s pretty much a click.”
For the last year, Worden and his growing team of data collectors have been counting those clicks to create the clearest statistical model of the island ever created. Aggregating, cleaning, organizing and finally analyzing data from town government, the airport, the ferries, nonprofits, local businesses, the census and many other public and private organizations, Worden and his team have created the Nantucket Data Platform (NDP) to help nonprofits, small businesses and town government operate more effectively. “We want to help them make smarter decisions,” Worden says. “We think evidence-based decision making can make everyone more successful. The tools just haven’t been available until now.”
The idea for the Nantucket Data Platform first took root during a retreat with ReMain Nantucket, of which Worden is an advisor. ReMain’s founder Wendy Schmidt posed a very basic question to the group: Who are we as a community? Worden set out to answer that question. He assembled a team to vacuum up data and distill it down to hard numbers. “We’re figuring out how many year-round commuters there are. How many summer people. How many visitors. How many permanent residents. And how many summer workers,” he says. In the process, Worden began developing a database that he saw could answer many more questions beyond Schmidt’s.
“It changes the way you think,” Worden says. “You’ll walk down Main Street and wonder if there’s data on this or that. How often do they pick up the garbage cans? How many bicycles get stolen? You can go around and collect all this data, but to what end?”
The end Worden envisions extends to putting data behind pressing questions. For instance, he has provided data to Nantucket Memorial Airport indicating which new flight routes would be most successful. He believes the data could be used to staff local businesses more strategically and make ordering retail inventory more economical. On the municipal level, just having an accurate population census would prove critical in redeveloping the sewer plan. Given that his Nantucket Data Platform is still in its infancy, Worden believes he’s only scratched the surface of what’s possible with this resource.
“According to some people, data analytics is the sexiest job in America,” Worden says with a chuckle. But as one might imagine, the realities of gathering, organizing, cleaning and storing data are incredibly painstaking. Just analyzing the census data, for instance, requires going through the lists and eliminating duplicate names that might have occurred through a myriad of subtle designations (Jr. versus Junior, for example) that a data cleaner needs to sniff out. In addition to his six-person team, Worden sends his raw data sets out to data scientists in Eastern Europe or India that can clean and organize it.
What began as a hobby occupying five hours of Worden’s week has morphed into a full-time obsession. “This can be an invaluable community initiative. Right now, we’re learning every single day and it’s a break-even initiative,” he says. “The challenge now is to make it economically sustainable.” His wife Victoria has since come on board to manage the technology side of the Nantucket Data Platform, which will sell data, analytics, visualizations, and technical support to a variety of organizations hungry for data but lacking the team needed to execute. The NDP team includes a board of eight advisers and a growing group of trustees who have committed to providing philanthropic support of $5,000 a year for the next three years. For the ReMain population work, he has recruited a team of five leading demographers. From there, this model of crunching numbers to develop insights in a small community could be brought to other towns similar to Nantucket.
In the more immediate future, however, Worden and his team will be presenting their findings to the original question that inspired the Nantucket Data Platform in the first place. On July 17th at the Dreamland, Worden will deliver to Wendy Schmidt and ReMain the first version of a paper that begins to answer the question of who we are as a community. The ticketed event will be open to the public.
Until that time, Worden is playing his numbers close to the vest. At press time, his data collectors were still feverishly cleaning and categorizing their findings and were cagey about revealing specifics until they were finalized. Instead, Worden shared some trends reflected by the numbers. For instance, the busiest weekend during the summer? The weekend of the Boston Pops concert in August, which edges out the Fourth of July by about four hundred people. Memorial Day weekend has also shown the most dramatic change, with a population increase of some 7,000 people. And when comparing the summer months, August is ten percent busier than July. Beyond that, Worden says folks will have to wait to read their official findings this month.
“My vision for this is within ten years, people will say, ‘Nantucket is known for bike paths and land conservation, its historic dis trict, racial integration in the 1800s, and for the Nantucket Data Platform.” Looking at Worden’s track record thus far, this vision seems like one he can count on.