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Big data can predict the future based on current trends

Posted by RuyM on April 27, 2017
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Strangely enough, perhaps, it’s now possible to see the future in fairly sharp detail.

The elements required to do so lie in the present. They’re known as “data.” Assembled and harnessed properly, the picture of what will be suddenly becomes much clearer, says David Farmer, a civil engineer and urban planner who in 2014 – with partner Dr. Paul Van Buskirk, now chairman of the board – formed Metro Forecasting Models, LLC, based in Bonita Springs.

Such sight, or foresight, can save millions of dollars for those able to apply the conclusions drawn from current data to someday, as many are discovering.

The firm now does work both for developers and local governments nationwide – in Colorado, Alabama, North Carolina, Utah, California, Oregon and extensively on Florida’s southwest coast. Metro’s reputation is now far-reaching. On the first day of April, Mr. Farmer will be a featured speaker at the National Land Conference in Charlotte, N.C., for example.

That’s for a good reason, says Forrest Cotton, director of planning in Auburn, Ala., who began his career on the southwest coast of Florida. “Alabama’s land-use laws are not as sophisticated as Florida’s – we didn’t have a comprehensive land-use plan when I got here,” he recalls. “With Dave’s proprietary data system – by us building a database and giving him information for population and zoning, and him looking at past growth rates and extrapolating them forward – he can help us predict not only what growth will be, but where.

“So we use this not only for land zoning but for infrastructure: for water and sewer, future fire stations, schools, neighborhood centers – it helps us get ahead of the curve.”

In Cape Coral, Fl., meanwhile, Metro Forecasting’s data use enables planners to see not where growth is going, but whether it can have what it needs when it gets there, says Persides Zambrano, Cape Coral’s Public Works planning manager.

“He’s really taking population projections to the next level. He’s cutting edge in his way of thinking how to do these projections and exercises,” she explains. “Because he’s an engineer and planner, he can see both sides of the use of data – not just to envisioning the size and population of a community, but also understanding the infrastructure we’ll need as we grow.

“He sees where it just makes sense to have future fire stations, a shopping center, all that information. He really opens minds.”

The company uses two forecasting models, Mr. Farmer says: an “aggregate model” that predicts across an entire metro area when and where single- and multi-family housing, along with commercial space, will be needed to meet a given increase in population; and a “disaggregate model.”

The disaggregate model collects data parcel by parcel across hundreds or even thousands of zones, forecasting for each zone and offering specifics: when and where demand will occur for industrial uses, for hotels and motels, for schools, parks, fire and police stations, libraries – and of course, water and sewer utilities, not to mention stormwater runoff, company literature explains.

It amounts to this from a local government or even a developer perspective: If you know where they’re going to be, you can buy the land, at least, and even create some infrastructure now, much less expensively that you likely could then, when it’s suddenly happening. And you’ll understand why growth cannot go into a certain zone if you realize there isn’t land to support everything else it needs in that zone.

When Metro Forecasting started out, says Mr. Farmer, the company looked at places that might be ideal to analyze, across the country. As it turned out, some weren’t.

“We ranked cities in the nation by economic growth. So areas with a high economic growth rate projected, and/or places that had grown in the past – we’d look at them and determine if there is more to come. Fremont, Calif., looks wonderful. It’s often listed in the top 100 desirable places to live in the United States. But from our perspective, there was no future growth because it’s fully built out.”

So the company went elsewhere. Lee County, Florida, for example, a wonderful place to live where buildout is anticipated at about 1.6 million, someday.

When a reporter asked Mr. Farmer if sitting in a 20-minute traffic back-up in Lee just to reach a traffic light at the intersection of Colonial Boulevard and U.S. 41 or Six Mile Cypress Parkway indicated poor past planning, he said probably not. Such aggravation may be a function of politics and money, not planning.

“I don’t think transportation was poorly planned, necessarily. Roads are expensive – everything that goes into transportation in general is expensive. If they’d tried to tax people then (around 1990, just after Mr. Farmer moved here) to build roads for now, people would have screamed.”

That’s because impact fees are designed to make those doing the impacting help pay for their impacts.

“There’s a school of thought,” says Mr. Farmer: “Let’s let growth pay for growth. One of the challenges is, the people who come here to make the county grow need (impact) fees that aren’t paid until they get here. So there’s a catch-up. A road of any consequence might be eight or 10 years in the making. So even though (officials) know growth is coming, they don’t have the funds.”

But if planners and elected officials do have the snap to work their way around that little problem, they can save millions, he adds – and, of course, great data and smart analyses have to be part of that.

Money up front, too.

Take the case of former Collier County Transportation Director Norm Feder. “On roads like Livingston, Imperial and Three Oaks – when Collier envisioned those growing (into Lee) – Feder said, ‘Four lanes won’t do it. Let’s bite the bullet, invest in ourselves and build all six lanes,'” said Mr. Farmer.

At the time, there was a lot of pushback, Mr. Farmer remembers. “But (Feder) did taxpayers a huge, huge favor in doing that,” he said, but it made the project more expensive, costing taxpayers more money.

And grief. When an eastward extension of Vanderbilt Beach Road was planned and put down a decade ago, Collier County had to buy out 19 homes using eminent domain, the first time in the county’s history that had happened. Nobody liked it, including officials– but they did it and ultimately in Mr. Farmer’s view it saves many others a great deal of money and trouble.

In all the national work his firm is doing, it’s also strongly devoted to the future of the southwest coast in Lee, Collier and Charlotte Counties, Mr. Farmer says.

“The firm is now developing IGM Version 3 forecasting models and generating more specific data for Cape Coral, Estero, Bonita Springs, Lehigh Acres (and) North Port,” he noted in a press release.

Would the roads in Lee and Collier look any different today if Metro Forecasting had existed a decade or more ago, providing such detailed information about the future to planners of that era?

“Probably not,” he says. “But could we have saved Lee and Collier some money, with right of ways and so on? Yes. The beauty of the models is they forecast very accurately when and where land growth will occur.

“As proof, I will point to two governments: Auburn, where they purchased government lands years before they needed them, saving the government huge amounts of money; and Cape Coral.”

In the Cape, he explains, officials (acting on behalf of future taxpayers) purchased land for fire stations they won’t need for five to 10 more years.

© Copyright 2017 Florida Weekly, Roger Williams. All rights reserved.

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