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This platform is like ‘Sim City’ for COVID-19 relief—but with real-world implications

UrbanFootprint was designed to let urban designers play ‘Sim City’ IRL. Then COVID-19 hit.

This platform is like ‘Sim City’ for COVID-19 relief—but with real-world implications
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When it was founded in 2015, the data platform UrbanFootprint had a specific target audience in mind. Its databases of economic, demographic, and geospatial information were focused on guiding where and how urban development should happen over time. It was meant, as company CEO and cofounder Joe DiStefano explains, “to allow urban planners and designers to play Sim City for real.”

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But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the company realized its data could be responsive to more pressing needs.

“In a crisis, people don’t necessarily have the time to learn Sim City. So we took what we had in the platform and we started directing it towards a very specific set of questions and answers,” he says. Now, instead of zoning rules and traffic patterns, UrbanFootprint’s databases are brimming with near-daily updates on pandemic-related unemployment, eviction risk, food insecurity, and relief needs. The company is working with states like Louisiana and California to direct aid where it’s needed most, down to the block level. This pandemic pivot is why UrbanFootprint has been named a winner in the Impact category of Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation by Design awards.

[Image: UrbanFootprint]
Drawing on a variety of open government and commercial data sources, UrbanFootprint has streamlined its analytical tools to help state and relief organizations understand and anticipate where people are at risk of eviction or hunger due to job losses or other impacts from the pandemic. Combining predictive models and realtime feedback, the platform helps those distributing aid programs to know where they are needed most. “We’re understanding where vulnerable people are and providing methods to reach them,” DiStefano says.

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The data can be highly specific. It can show which neighborhoods may be at risk of hunger or eviction by noting the density of residents employed in pandemic-hit industries like retail and hospitality. By noticing increases in unemployment claims or COVID-19 relief claims, UrbanFootprint can make educated guesses about where aid will soon be needed—and use a streamlined data dashboard to inform the administrators responsible for getting that aid to residents in need.

This is some of the work the company has been doing in Louisiana. Working with the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), UrbanFootprint’s platform is being used to map out the neighborhoods most likely to be in need of the food assistance provided through SNAP, and helping aid providers know which households facing food insecurity haven’t yet applied for help. The administrators of these programs can then contact people directly through door knocking, neighborhood focused mailers, or ad campaigns.

The platform is providing a similar analysis of households and neighborhoods facing risk of eviction in California, and getting that information to the groups running the state’s rental relief program, who can then send out mailers or other forms of information to the specific homes or neighborhoods in question. “We’re understanding who’s in need, and who may not be applying for aid even though they could qualify,” DiStefano says.

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The platform hasn’t abandoned its original urban planning purposes, but the pandemic has shown that it can be useful to a wider group of users. DiStefano says the company has begun using its granular data and analysis to provide information to utility and electricity companies, helping them to prioritize maintenance of transformers and even predict where faulty equipment can lead to outages or even wildfires.

“The pandemic has led us to lean pretty heavily into ways to utilize our data and our platform to provide really targeted insights to those who need them at a time of crisis,” DiStefano says. “Unfortunately we’re living in a world that is going to be in crisis for a really long time.”

See more from Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation by Design Awards. Our new book, Fast Company Innovation by Design: Creative Ideas That Transform the Way We Live and Work (Abrams, 2021), is on sale now.