Above: Ryan in Tanzania, interviewing a village leader (left) about residents using solar-powered lighting in their homes.

Ryan is an urban planning researcher with interests in sustainability and monitoring and evaluation. His education, work experience, and research have focused on how civic engagement, technology, and data affect planning outcomes. He worked as a city planner on the 2012 master plan for Cincinnati, Ohio – the first master plan for the city in 30 years. He also worked on a favela mapping project in Rio de Janeiro and conducted an evaluation of USAID’s decentralized energy programming in Tanzania. Ryan holds a Bachelor’s in Philosophy and a Master’s in Community Planning.

Welcome to Data-Driven Yale!  Can you tell us a bit about the projects you’ll be working on in your new role?

Thank you – I’m excited to be here! The main project I’ll be focusing on is an adaptation of the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), which provides a country-by-country assessment of performance on key environmental issues, to the urban scale. The EPI often finds a lot of variation in environmental performance within nations — for instance, water pollution can vary widely within a country’s borders. Environmental challenges are often localized, and urban governments can be more responsive to these issues and to community pressures. Urban areas also typically have a lot of autonomy, and can serve as fertile ground for experimentation, in terms of environmental policy, as compared to the national scale. We’re excited to extend the framework to the urban context to explore these issues, and our tentative goal is to release an urban version of this index approximately a year from now.

This position is an interesting fit for you, since your background includes work in urban planning departments – how does your experience as a former urban practitioner inform how you think about setting and measuring a city’s environmental goals through this new index?  

Hopefully, my background as an urban planner is one of the strengths I can bring to this role. One of the first things I thought of when I learned about this role was how skeptical I had been, as an urban planner, when trying to select and apply global indices to urban policies.  I remember wondering whether the data used by these indices was really relevant to me as a local urban planner, operating in a highly local setting. Hopefully, I can try to develop urban environmental indicators with these experiences in mind. For instance, I hope to develop case studies that bring some of the unique considerations of urban sustainability into focus, and to determine what types of environmental data are most relevant to professionals working at this scale.

More and more, cities around the world are taking the lead in efforts to tackle environmental challenges — what issues are cities best positioned to address? What unique challenges do they face?

One of main things I think that cities can address is transportation, both through local planning boards and by fostering regional collaboration. Cities are also in a good position to collect localized data, and they do this through monitoring and planning activities and in response to federal and state grants. In terms of challenges, cities face a difficult dilemma between the need to grow a tax base through business development, and the environmental pressures that process often puts on a city. This is another aspect I hope to incorporate into the Urban Sustainability Index, because it’s often under-studied. Including the structure of each regional economy in the Index will enable us to see if we can find any relationships between, say, the pollution levels and environmental challenges in industrial-based economies compared to service-based economies. As we identify more policies in cities that have done a good job, this information will allow urban managers in places with a lower score to identify similar cities and borrow best practices from them.

Hunting for shells at Lake Champlain, Vermont.Ryan hunts for shells in Lake Champlain, Vermont.

You’ve helped bring mobile data and technology into a number of applied research projects. Can you speak to some of the key considerations in applying new kinds of technology to environmental measurement and management?

It’s important for indicators to be responsive to their local context. I first became interested in the potential of mobile data collection when I was part of a team mapping a favela, or informal settlement, in Rio de Janeiro. These houses were not reflected on the city’s land maps, which meant that they were often overlooked in the municipal government’s budgeting process. By creating and submitting maps of this settlement to the city, the project aimed to bring these settlements into the planning and provision of urban services, such as electricity, trash collection, and access to improved water.

The method that we used involved taking rulers and yardsticks into people’s houses, and mapping the footprints of their homes with pen and paper. It took our team of students six to eight trips to the area to map just one block. That was in 2011. Now, just a few years later, you could use a mobile application that is open-source and free, which could create those maps digitally in a fraction of the time. This experience led me to recognize the scope of the problem and to really dive into the potential of new technologies, such as mobile data collection, to address it.  

Can you recommend any books that speak to or helped spark your interest in urban planning, technology, or the environment in general?

One of my favorite philosophy books on the environment is Questions Concerning Technology by Martin Heidegger. I read this book as an undergrad, and it really helped me frame the big existential questions around humans and the environment, and specifically around humans as a species that changes the environment, and what our ethical responsibilities are in that respect. I also really love all of Edward Tufte’s books, which delve into the theory of data visualization, and Visualize This by Nathan Yau, which draws on Tufte’s work and provides more practical examples of how to visualize data.