ESSAY: Data… and the American Dream, Part Four

Read Part One

The word “data” came into common usage here in America in the 1950s, when computer scientists began to use it to refer to raw, unprocessed bits of information. The term has an earlier history in the English language, dating back to the 1600s when a new breed of scientists began reimagining the universe as a mechanical, quantifiable object that would eventually be explained in terms of various mathematical formulae.

This was, back in the 1600s, a radical challenge to the more common view of the universe as a divine mystery that would be understood only upon the Second Coming of Christ. The word ‘data’ was apparently derived from the Latin dare, meaning “that which is given, or assumed to be a fact.”

The scientific view obviously held sway at the June 27 Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation luncheon, wherein we received assurances that a data-processing subsidiary of the Equifax corporation could — for the low, low price of $50,000 — explain how to make Pagosa Springs a more profitable place to do business, by analyzing millions of pieces of data.

Apparently, the folks who analyze data for a living are looking for one of five basic things.

1. Anomalies — identifying bits of data that lie outside the normal range.

2. Associations — for example, the recommendations on Amazon.com that tell me, “Other people who shopped for this item also shopped for the following items…”

3. Clusterings — defining ‘groups’ of items in the data that seem to have similar characteristics.

4. Regression — the creation of an algorithm that seems capable of modeling an identified pattern, with the least possible error.

5. Summarization — providing a simplified explanation or visualization for a complex set of data points.

From what I heard at Neil Aldridge’s hour-long presentation to a collection of local businessmen and businesswomen on June 27, it sounds like Equifax would be willing to perform some ‘Clustering’ analysis for Pagosa Springs — with maybe some ‘Summarization’ thrown in for good measure.

When he had finished, there were a few questions still lingering in the air. What result are we looking for, in exchange for investing $50,000 — and can Equifax deliver that result?

Is Equifax the only company that can provide this service?

And perhaps most importantly, can the community provide the “data” that Equifax (or some similar company) would need to have us provide to them, in order for them to deliver what we are looking for?

At the conclusion of his sales pitch, Mr. Aldridge opened the floor for questions, many of which he was able to answer in a salesman-like fashion. Many of the audience comments revealed a general interest in what Mr. Aldridge was selling, and — from the few representatives of the lodging industry in the room — a willingness to help out by providing “data” in the form of customer names and addresses. As we noted yesterday in Part Three, Mr. Aldridge claimed that his company could analyze and summarize our tourism market in a meaningful way — as “buckets” or “cohorts” — using only visitors’ names and addresses.

At the conclusion of the luncheon, we were treated to another brief sales pitch, this time from Jason Cox, president of the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation — the CDC, the taxpayer-funded organization that has been struggling, since 2010, to accomplish something beneficial for the community.

Mr. Cox:

“So [the CDC] wants to drive the process of getting data for our community. To establish a baseline of where we stand today, so we can measure from that in the future. And also, influence decisions.

“What we need next is, first of all, community involvement and effort. I see that here today, and I’ve heard a lot of people who say they are interested in this project and see its benefits. So we will more formally put together a project management team, or something of that nature, to move forward.

“At the end of the day, there’s no romance without finance. We need some money to finance this; we’re going to need money to pay the consultants to do this work. So we’re going to put together a project team and figure out how to finance this. We will ask the Town and County for some help; we’re going to ask the business community. We need money in the 2018 time frame. We think we can get this rolled out.. we need buy-in, we need community stakeholders to get us data in the right format, collaborating with [Equifax] about what kinds of questions we want answered..

“If we go after this, we could have it done, possibly first or second quarter of 2018, and then we will have the data to start sharing with our business community, as well as with businesses thinking about relocating here. How do we attract businesses like Voormi, if we want the outdoor lifestyle businesses to come here? All of a sudden, we can say, ‘Here’s who lives here, here’s who visits here..'”

Mr. Cox is also a partner in the Riff Raff Brewery, a brew pub I frequent and enjoy and which seems, from the customer’s viewpoint, to be wildly successful, especially during the summer tourism season. Mr. Cox had also reminded us during the luncheon that he owns three vacation rentals — presumably, homes that were once part of the long-term rental market but which are more profitable when rented to visitors rather than local residents.

In other words, Mr. Cox is deeply invested in the tourism industry. So it would sense that he’d like to see our local governments help fund a $50,000 report that could enhance his ability to attract tourists to his businesses.

The question I might pose to Mr. Cox and the CDC: Why should the taxpayers pay for this study, when it’s really the lodging companies and restaurants that would benefit?

Below are images taken from the CDC’s Form 990 federal tax returns for the years 2013, 2014, and 2015. Supposedly, the CDC is a membership organization that receives a significant portion of its annual funding through ‘business memberships.’ Why the annual tax returns show “Zero” income from “Membership dues and assessments,” I am unable to explain. But I do know, from Town and County budgets, that local taxpayers are making sizable quarterly payments to the CDC.

We have some real crises developing in the Pagosa Springs community, resulting from various and sundry economic forces. One of the crises involves deteriorating infrastructure, especially our streets and roads. Will “more tourists” help that situation? I cannot imagine they would.

Another crisis is a frightening lack of affordable housing. Many of the employees working in our (reportedly ever-more-successful) tourism industry are now living in their cars out in the forest, or are paying in excess of 50 percent of their income for housing. Or are working three jobs to survive here. Meanwhile, the wages generally paid by the lodging and restaurant industry remain low. I presume that means, the company profits are high?

At the same time, a significant portion of what was once affordable rental housing in the community has been converted to expensive vacation rentals.

A problem closely related to the lack of affordable housing: a lack of willing workers. The most recent edition of the Pagosa Springs SUN included 70 classified ads in their ‘Help Wanted’ section — some of which were advertising for multiple positions. And nearly every large business in town has a “Now Hiring” sign near its entrance.

Can Equifax address these crises? Or would “spending more taxpayer revenues to promote more tourism” merely make the our crises even worse?

Read Part Five…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.