A simple question attempts to improve commuting in Chicago and other great data-gathering ideas.

Collective wisdom.
Dec. 9 2010 5:18 PM

Give a Minute!

A simple question attempts to improve commuting in Chicago and other great data-gathering ideas.

Give a Minute app. Click image to expand.

This is the last week for the "Data for a Better Planet" Hive, and I've been combing through the excellent suggestions. Here are five that caught my eye:

BOINC

That's an acronym for the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. The goal is to "use the idle time on your computer to cure diseases, study global warming, discover pulsars, and do many other types of scientific research." Basically, you install a program that runs in the background and contributes processing power to scientific projects such as climate models, a three-dimensional model of the Milky Way, or the attempt to break historical Enigma codes. Volunteer computing is an indirect way to help with the production of beneficial data. It all began with the search for intelligent life.

Mint Data

The personal finance site Mint.com takes its 4 million accounts and anonymously aggregates the numbers at Mint Data. The site is still in beta, but the impression it leaves is that of an engine just about to get revved up. Last year, using these data, the researchers at Mint showed how Redbox was competing with Netflix and charted its dramatic rise. They've also looked at "The Coffee Economy" and "Black Friday 2009." Mint Data allows you to parse spending data in more than 300 U.S. cities. The big caveat is that most Mint users do not log their cash transactions, only credit and debit cards. Hence, an analysis of the most popular coffee shops in a city is less sound than, say, an analysis of the most popular restaurants.

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Still, there's a lot of big-picture facts to grasp. My own experience of Mint is that it has a certain unmerciful quality: There is no hiding from exactly how much you spend vs. how much you make. What would happen if I followed the exodus from Brooklyn, N.Y., to the "Indie City" of Portland, Ore.? The average monthly expenses in Brooklyn are $4,673. The average monthly expenses in Portland are $4,517. If I wanted to get serious about a lower cost of living, it's time to look closely at a city I've always liked: Pittsburgh. 

ReadMore

Did you know that singer Art Garfunkel keeps a list of every book that he's read over the past 40 years? Neither did I. The first title, from June of 1968, is Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Confessions. The last listed title, from September of 2009, is Nora Ephron's I Feel Bad About My Neck. Garfunkel is a committed highbrow reader, skipping from Henry James to Aristotle to Saint Augustine with nary a Dick Francis or John Grisham to be found. He doesn't need the helpful iPhone app called ReadMore.

ReadMore is simple: You enter a book's title and what page you are on, and then time yourself during your reading session. If you do a decent job of recordkeeping, the app calculates your reading speed and lets you know about how long it will take you to finish a book. Somehow the notion of "I've got an hour to go" spurs me on to more reading. The app also logs what titles I've read (and when I finished them), so I have a nice list to show Garfunkel should I ever run into him in Central Park. While ReadMore is best for personal reading, Library Thing is a book-sharing site that offers the best opportunity to browse the reading habits of others.

Carefully Tend Your Twitter Garden

Yeah, I know, obvious. But many people mentioned that one way to look at Twitter is that it turns people into emitters of interesting data. Twitter gardeners cultivate and prune who they follow and use the site as a catholic news source, their own slice of the collective babble. Exhibit A is the Twitter regimen of journalism professor Jay Rosen and the public Twitter lists he has created, like "Best mindcasters I know." After you've tailored your Twitter feed, hook it up to Feedera, which will pull out the links, videos, and photographs and send them to you in a daily morning e-mail.

Give a Minute

"Hey Chicago, what would encourage you to walk, bike and take CTA more often?" That's the question on the Give a Minute site right now. It takes all of 15 seconds to type in or text your idea, which is displayed on a Post-it note in real time: "Flowers and hot guys," "Better stations on the red line," "Heated bus stops and more routes PLEASE," "Nothing," and so on. Why contribute? The carrot is the site's promise that city officials are "listening." They will respond personally to the best suggestions. The idea is coming soon to Memphis, Tenn.; San Jose, Calif.; and New York. All it takes is a good question and an easy way to contribute to create a valuable citywide conversation.

Tomorrow, I'll write about the best ideas contributed to the Hive.

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Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.