Alan Worden

Cape Cod Life  /  Annual Life 2020 /

Writer: Chris White

Founder of Nantucket Data Platform  \\  Helping Nantucket grow and thrive

“Nike doesn’t choose purple for its next sneaker without analyzing data,” says Alan Worden, founder of the Nantucket Data Platform. “Yet it’s shocking that at the community level, leaders have had nothing; they’re making major decisions affecting hundreds of thousands of people, based on anecdotes.”

Like many entrepreneurs, Alan Worden created the nonprofit Nantucket Data Platform to answer questions and to provide solutions. Rising cost of living expenses and high housing prices have been forcing residents to move off island for years, and yet Nantucket has been the “fastest-growing county” in Massachusetts. As Worden and other residents tried to imagine remedies to this conundrum, they realized that nobody had any real facts. For ten years, Worden had been advising ReMain Nantucket, a non-profit “dedicated to strengthening the lasting economic, social, and environmental vitality” of the island, so the question of how to make it easier for people to afford to live and work there is essential. ReMain’s projects are offshoots of the Schmidt Family Foundation, of which Wendy Schmidt is president; her husband Eric served as CEO at Google from 2001 to 2011. As Worden hypothesized about some of Nantucket’s issues, he said to the Schmidts, “Wait a minute. Aren’t we data people?” 

ReMain had a long list of initiatives, and the team wanted to show “a data resource that describes the community: everything from the port to the hospital and housing,” says Worden. “How could we serve the community if we couldn’t accurately describe it? I got tagged to figure it out.” Thus, in 2016, he launched the Nantucket Data Platform.

Before the Nantucket Data Platform could make any contribution, it had to decide where to begin. Many issues boil down to population, so they started here. Conventional wisdom, conjecture really, estimated the year-round population at about 12,000, Worden recalls, with summer numbers peaking at 80,000. “Massachusetts requires a census, but this really only counts adults,” says Worden. “Children are measured in projections.” Furthermore, many people simply ignore these yearly surveys, which are then held by the town clerk’s office, where “they’re not really analyzed.” The team of about 40 data scientists working for the Nantucket Data Platform would change this by tapping into numbers from a variety of sources. “Lots of organizations have some data,” says Worden, “police departments, banks, and airports among them. In many cases, realtors have more data than mayors.” By pulling together multiple data sets, the organization was able to arrive at much more accurate population figures. Its analysts determined that there are 17,200 year-round residents, or 5,600 more than the census estimated, but the summer population is actually far less than had been believed, standing at 40,000—or roughly 50% less than anecdotes had suggested. Something as simple as the number of people in a community has wide-ranging implications when it comes to planning, from estimating traffic patterns and parking needs to deciding how many police officers to hire.

Once the team had established daily population numbers, the scientists proceeded to tackle more advanced and nuanced issues such as costs of living and affordable housing. Without data, how can a community understand even the most basic elements of any issue? “What is the supply of housing in relation to the demand?” asked Worden. “What are people’s preferences: to rent or to own? And who needs the housing: single people or families of four? With no answers, you could waste lots of money and time.” 

Worden’s team has undertaken a variety of projects, including ones to assess the housing landscape and to determine air route demands—the island needed direct flights from Philadelphia, for instance. For different types of data, Nantucket Data Platform uses different approaches, including surveys. Worden warns that this type of information collection can be dangerous, so it’s important to use the right methodology to make the results reliable. “You don’t need to survey everybody, though,” he says. “A good survey should be like a soil core sample.” 

The achievements of the organization have led to a nationwide expansion; the Cost of Living Calculator that it created for the island will soon be available for communities across the country. In fact, Worden’s success in Nantucket has led to a new venture based in Washington D.C. called Community Data Platforms. Early clients include the cities of Hartford, CT, and Santa Fe, NM. Worden concludes, “It all starts with a question. We make it possible for leaders to stop hunting down data and start finding real solutions. We help guide and inform their impact, and that’s a powerful thing.”

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Chris White

Chris White is a frequent writer for Cape Cod Life Publications and has written on topics ranging from the history of Smith’s Tavern on Wellfleet Island to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket. Chris also teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.