After years of hearing all the talk about the potential of data analysis to guide decisionmaking, it’s still a treat to hear of somebody who is well past just talking and is really helping people make real-world decisions.
That’s what makes Jon Commers of St. Paul-based Visible City interesting. His company is still just a startup, yet Visible City has been analyzing multiple layers of data to do things like help a client find the single best site for a new apartment building. That seems pretty practical.
Commers said Visible City is more of a consulting firm than a technology startup, adding that most clients just want their questions answered and prefer not to wade into the data themselves. While he can’t be sure other firms in the country aren’t selling a similar service, he said, if there are he’s not heard of them.
Commers didn’t use the term “big data” once in two conversations. He comes across as more of a policy wonk than tech entrepreneur, somebody interested in ways to make it a little easier to live in and get around a big metropolitan area.
His main idea is that metros like the Twin Cities are very complex and dynamic places, and anybody looking to invest — whether a city planning a new fire station or a developer teeing up an apartment deal — could sure use more insight on what’s happening.
Visible City got its start in 2015, yet Commers has long been working in and around the field of land use, including serving as chairman of the St. Paul Planning Commission and working as a finance consultant on real estate projects. We have 52 contacts in common on LinkedIn and he has occasionally crossed paths with my wife in real estate, but until meeting for coffee I could not have begun to describe what Visible City does.
Commers had come to understand just how much data was generally available, but the challenge in making decisions was making the data really accessible to managers and investors, he said. An automobile traffic database maintained by City Hall might be reachable over an internet connection, but it’s not really accessible until information from it has been included in a broader process that leads to a practical conclusion.
“The data collection that’s going on is being undertaken by private parties, and public parties, and on everything from traffic stoplights to ways consumers move around a particular department store,” he said. “And the reality, though, is that not much of that information is ever really analyzed.”
The kind of data a lot of executives do seem to know about, he said, is what comes from their own customers.
A health club, for example, can know a lot about the behavior of its customers just from the member ID cards that pass a scanner when each of its customers arrives. From there it’s easy to go into account files to find out where each of them live and then guess how big of a hassle it was to get to the club.
Now it’s possible to accurately predict who is most likely to decide the monthly fee isn’t worth it, so the club manager can kick off a targeted incentive program to encourage the no-shows to come by more often.
Some Visible City clients will make available the data on customers they own, Commers said, and then what Commers and his colleagues Jennifer Strahan and Matt Goodwin do is start layering on top of it information they have found elsewhere.
A site search might include lot size and value information from a county’s property tax system. If proximity to transit is a good thing, much more can be learned than just the distance to the line. Here in the Twin Cities Metro Transit data will reveal the details of who jumps on and off at each bus stop, as one stop might be far more popular with riders than the stops on either side of it.
Thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones and the ability to know their locations, it’s also possible to know where social media posts originate. And then maybe Visible City layers reported crime locations on top of all that other information, and so on. With enough data layered on top of other data, the single best project site along a bus line becomes “visible,” as Commers put it.
“What Jon is doing is really complicated, weaving all these data streams together,” said Noah Bly, of Edina real estate firm Integrated Development, a client. He added that his firm didn’t have the horsepower for “that level of brainiac kind of work.”
Bly explained he wants to build micro apartments, a type of multifamily building that features studio apartments that may not even reach 400 square feet in size. This kind of project doesn’t need a very big site, so there might be lots of real estate parcels where it could fit.
On the other hand, itty-bitty apartments won’t appeal to everybody. The target market is mostly younger people who would rather spend their money on interesting things outside of their four walls than on nice furnishings or more living space than they think they need.
Bly hired Visible City to assist on a site search. He wanted to be both genuinely helpful and not give too much away, so he described his project like this: “What we’re interested in was locating a certain size of property, at a certain value, adjacent to certain institutions.”
The search has yet to wrap up with an announced project, Bly said, yet he can’t imagine how on his own he would have identified the promising sites turned up so far. And as Bly wryly observed about his relatively simple assignment, “we didn’t test his capacity.”
Bly said that while he has known Commers for years as a consultant, he later hired Visible City for much the same reason I found Commers interesting — he was actually using data analysis tools and processes every day to help make decisions.
“Everybody talks about it. ‘Ooh, we are all going to use big data,’ ” Bly said. “But who’s actually doing it?”