When I came to Los Angeles in 1970, I couldn't figure it out. The city and its environs were exhaustingly big and complicated. Eventually, I saw it's just a place of distinctive neighborhoods. If I learned about L.A. neighborhood by neighborhood, I'd understand the city.
That experience came back to me recently when I visited Crosstown, a non-profit news organization run out of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, in cooperation with the Integrated Media Systems Center at the university’s Viterbi School of Engineering and mappers from SC's Spatial Sciences Institute.
It is a fascinating effort to dig into L.A., neighborhood by neighborhood, with data, computer science, mapping and journalistic curiosity.
The Crosstown staff collects statistics from the many public agencies that comprise local government in the Los Angeles basin. The stats are scattered around the county, unavailable except for those who have the time and skill to root through them. Crosstown makes available in one spot the numbers on crime, traffic, air quality, schools, mass transit and other functions of local government.
"We want to be able to connect people to their neighborhood, we want to make them feel part of their neighborhood," USC journalism professor Gabriel Kahn, publisher and editor of Crosstown, told me. As Crosstown's website explained it, "We want you to use it to hold local government accountable and to help people make choices about where to live, work or send your kids to school." The website is xtown.la.
Crosstown uses intricate information-gathering methods. Traffic data comes from 14,000 sensors embedded in 5,400 miles of Los Angeles County freeways and roads. In addition, sensors in every bus and train report their locations every 30 seconds. USC Viterbi engineers built a system to process this trove of information.
Information such as this has permitted Crosstown to reveal facts about Los Angeles traffic that could influence policy. For example, it takes an hour to travel from Santa Clarita to downtown Los Angeles, compared to 46 minutes four years ago. This is the sort of data--compared to gossip and gut feelings--that should shape debate over more transit lines, freeway and street modification, limits on driving and eventual elimination of gas-fueled vehicles, all part of the fight against air pollution and the climate change it helps cause.
Debate over climate change could also be influenced by Crosstown's almost one-year-long, hour-by-hour study of pollution in 251 neighborhoods, cities and towns in Los Angeles County.
How will these neighborhood-by-neighborhood pollution studies influence public policy?
On the local level, they could show Angelenos exactly how lousy their air and traffic is. When they or their neighborhood groups complain to city hall or their neighborhood councils, they will be armed with enough information to demolish bureaucratic excuses and frighten their elected representatives into action. From this could come grassroots movements for the fight against climate change, locally and throughout the state.
I've seen this happen before, in the pre-computer days. Activists, gathering data from documents by hand, saw beyond their own neighborhoods and joined together in powerful movements. Their work saved the Santa Monica Mountains from further development and created the coastal commission. If the Crosstown community expands and more Angelenos participate, receiving and sharing data, they could comprise the latest chapter in the story of saving the Southland.