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How MuniLand Sees Cities

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As part of our municipal work here at Sunlight, we're inviting various people to share their take on what makes a city and why transparency at this level is important. Today's post is from Cate Long, a guest contributor to Reuters.com on the municipal bond market.  By Cate Long Alisha Green of Sunlight Foundation is working on a project to identify the ways that different types of data are used to describe cities. She put up a great post that sketches out a number of ways to view a city demographically, including population density, unemployment and housing. She asked me recently to write about how I personally view cities. I think of cities almost entirely as cash flow machines that collect taxes and provide social services. That is muniland. Here are Alisha’s questions and my answers: 1. From your point of view, what is a city? Cities are legal entities that are incorporated to provide essential services; especially police, fire, education and water and sewer systems. Depending on the state, cities have legal authority to enter contracts, collect specific types of taxes and maintain judicial systems. Many cities also provide more expansive social services including care of the elderly and disabled and maintenance of parks and hospitals.

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18 New Ways of Visualizing A City

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The way we visualize and compare cities says much about our understanding of how they work. As part of our ongoing exploration of what makes a city, we wanted to survey how people are using data to describe the political, geographical and social realities cities face. Below, we've compiled some unique visualizations. Some of these center around cities in the common sense of the word, focusing on large urban areas, but we think these images as a group help expand the understanding of the diversity of all kinds of municipalities. We aren't demographers, but we aren't working in a vacuum, either. As we continue to engage in open data work, we hope to contribute to the kind of information that powers these visuals and help create the resources for the next wave of municipal understanding.

POPULATION DENSITY

1. This 2010 U.S. Census map, from a report about population change, shows population-weighted density by metropolitan statistical area. That's a complicated way of essentially saying the map shows how tightly packed people are on average in metropolitan areas, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. The map shows how people generally are more condensed in metropolitan areas along the East and West coasts than they are in metropolitan areas in the middle of the country. population-weighted-density-for-US-metros

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What is a City?

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As we expand on our vision for local government transparency, we realize we need to start with defining what we mean by local. The general scope of the work we’re taking on is targeted at the idea of “municipal” government, something we’ve been referring to internally as city government, though we’ve quickly realized it’s not that simple. Municipal government takes many forms, and if we’re being accurate, we have to set our scope a bit wider. In the United States, a municipal government is a local government that has been authorized or incorporated according to state constitutions and statutes. Depending on the state, a municipality could be a city, town, or village, or even a borough or township. There are more than 19,000 incorporated places (e.g. municipalities), according to 2010 U.S. Census data, and they vary dramatically in size, shape, and structure.

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