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Exploring Perceptions of Structural Racism in Housing Valuation Through 3D Visualizations

Lisa Haye, CUNY John Jay College (Economics, B.S.)

Mentors: Courtney Cogburn and Oyewole Oyekoya

Week 1

The 2023 VR-REU commenced at the Framers Bowling Lounge as a Memorial Day icebreaker, where we all introduced ourselves to one another, as well as to Professor Wole’s research team. The following day, we convened at Hunter College where we were introduced to some of the program mentors, and I began reviewing the work of my 2022 predecessor to think about how I could either expand or pivot last year’s work towards a new direction. Professor Wole also began his lecture on VR, AR, and MR, and we were introduced to the history of the field, as well as its applications across various disciplines. 

I met with both Professor Wole, and my research mentor, Professor Courtney Cogburn, to discuss the potential framework of my project. I began exploring both Unity Terrain and potential city and house asset packages in the Unity Asset Store, as these applications will be key to constructing my visualization models for the project. I also began looking at publications centered around both structural racism and how the issue has been visualized in the past. 

We ended this week with Professor Wole introducing us to Paraview, a scientific visualization program, for our self-paced lab session. I submitted my project proposal, and began to draft a schedule towards curating a literature review of my topic, as well as experimenting with Unity Terrain.

Week 2

This week, Professor Wole taught us the preliminary tenets of writing a scientific research paper and introduced us to Overleaf to compose our writing. Professor Wole also held VR lectures on immersive visual and interactive displays, along with 3D geometry. 

Meanwhile, this week my time was split between conducting a literature review to create a bibliography, finding databases that correlate with the data visualization aspect of this project, and familiarizing myself with Unity with a test model of different functions that are key to my 3D models. I identified three potential data points for my models (housing valuation, climate, and the access to green space), as well as two neighborhoods within the Bronx to serve as case studies to highlight disparities based on that data. Professor Wole also introduced me to MapBox for Unity, a location data and maps platform that could be integrated into Unity for precise map development; I am considering using a mixture of MapBox and Unity Terrain as my methodology for the project moving forward.

The week ended with all of us attending the CUNY SciCom’s “Communicating Your Science” Symposium at CUNY’s Advanced Science Research Center, where we listened to various CUNY graduate students talk about their research with general and peer audience presentations. It was exciting listening to disciplines such as mathematics to biology to physics come together to talk about their work in a way that was fun, educational, and most importantly, accessible to audiences who may not be familiar with concepts such as the sonification of star rotations , DNA G-Quadruplexes, and properties of shapes!

Here is a screenshot of my test model on Unity from earlier this week:

 
Week 3
 

This week, Professor Wole gave lectures on immersion, presence, and reality, as well as 3D tracking, scanning, and animation. We all had an engaging conversation on the uncanny valley, the theory that humans experience revulsion as they observe a character that is close to human characteristics, but are slightly off in appearance. Professor Wole’s scientific visualization lab this week centered on Visual Molecular Dynamics (VMD), a molecular 3D visualization program. 

Here is a screenshot of the ubiquitin protein molecule, visualized in CPK style and color set to ResID. I am not too sure what those acronyms mean, but I am interested in finding out:

 

As for my project, I was split between creating a first draft for the abstract, introduction, and related works sections and experimenting with MapBox. I think my methodology is going to shift towards a more MapBox-intensive procedure, with creating custom map styles on MapBox Studio, and then deploying it to Unity3D. Thus, I spent a lot of time getting a crash course on MapBox’s functions; I created a demo map of Riverdale, one of the Bronx neighborhoods featured in my project, to get a taste of how these models would look like in Unity. I actually ran into quite a few errors, most importantly, my map object did not play in game mode and it does not appear in the hierarchy unless I manually move it there, and I wonder if modeling the map will be easier with the 2017 version of Unity (the version most compatible with current MapBox software). Nonetheless, I hope to work these errors out with Professor Wole soon. Meanwhile, here is my demo model of a Bronx neighborhood:

Next week, I hope to begin the formal construction of my models!

Week 4

Roadblock, roadblock, roadblock – my computer refused to open a project with Unity’s 2017 editor so I couldn’t test if that resolved the problems, my maps continued to refuse to display unless I manually enabled their preview separately, they could not be represented together side by side, and it was difficult to display them properly in the game scene, and I honestly became dejected. I began considering whether or not my project had to pivot back to manually visualizing data with Unity Terrain and assets from the Asset store, and Professor Wole’s PhD student, Kwame Agyemang, and I tried to find any 3D models of New York City that could be imported in Unity, in case a pivot was necessary. Nonetheless, I compiled data from Zillow and the New York City Environment and Health Data Portal to be used for housing valuation, climate, and greenspace data; the former was extracted using a Google Chrome extension called Zillow Data Explorer, and then opened as a Google Sheet, and the latter was manually compiled into a Google Sheets on my drive. 

My breakthrough occurred just on Friday, when Professor Wole hosted our midterm presentations for our status updates; after disclosing my setback, a fellow REU student revealed they actually had prior experience using Mapbox! Thanks to Richard Yeung, the problem was resolved – if Mapbox is being used with a recent version of Unity (in this case, I am using Unity Editor version 2021.3.19f1), you must download ‘AR Foundation [current version is 4.2.8]’ and ‘AR Core XR [4.2.8]’ from the Unity Package Manager, and when importing Mapbox SDK into Unity, do not import ‘Google AR Core’, ‘Mapbox AR’, and ‘Unity AR Interface’. With that, I was able to have my map display properly and my use of Mapbox for this project can now continue. It was very nice seeing how everyone’s projects are coming together, and my talk with Professor Wole helped me consider how I will fulfill my research question while also considering Professor Cogburn’s reminder to consider my audience when thinking about representing data effectively. Because of this week’s setback, I am a bit pressed for time in terms of creating my models and writing my methodology for my paper, so this weekend requires me to make up for lost time; nonetheless, as I create my models, I am going to consider how I want to construct a user study for this project.

Obstacles are bound to happen in research, but it is important to keep your mind open to change in projects, and to ask your network and your network’s network for help, you never know who can help until you do. Here is a test model for my two Bronx neighborhoods actually displaying side by side! 

 
Week 5
 

With the resolution of my Mapbox problems, I spent this week really honing in on the details of my models, both in terms of what data was being visualized and how I want to represent the information on Unity. My housing valuation model, which I originally presumed would be my easiest model to complete, took some thinking as I considered how I wanted to represent redlining and what data point I would be expressing; I decided to focus on highlighting a sample of property values of single-family homes currently on sale as of June 2023 that are above the median value for the Bronx ($442,754, according to Zillow) and condominiums in both neighborhoods. I am still experimenting with how the climate model could be visually represented, and greenspace is going to highlight the environment of both neighborhoods.

I spent some time working on the methodology section of my paper, and lessons this week included Professor Wole’s lecture on interactive 3D graphics, as well as an introduction to Tableau for our lab work. Professor Wole generously took the REU participants on a cruise from Pier 61 for lunch, and we all ate food and chatted on the water as we sailed by downtown Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Statue of Liberty.

Next week, I hope to complete my models and finish up my writing for the methodology. I haven’t worked on the details for the user study of my project, so I hope to speak to my mentors regarding its structure.

Week 6

This week, I was able to complete a model for housing valuation, climate, and the environment, but I could not find a way to visualize climate and the environment in a 3D format so the research is solely going to focus on visualizing housing valuation. Professor Wole, Professor Cogburn, and I discussed the various potential dimensions and codes that could be used to visualize the existing data in different ways, and now that I’m scrapping climate and the environment, I will be focusing on as many ways to visualize housing valuation as I can, while reframing my paper, and reframing the script for my user study. Future work could consider visualizing various forms of structural racism either separately or concurrently within various neighborhoods. 

With what I’ve learned technically through visualizing the housing valuation data, portions of the current model I have will translate into the various models I have to create, such as a baseline model to be used as a comparison, as well as a color dimension of the redlined versus non-redlined community. I also have to consider focusing solely on representing single-family homes or condominiums in my target neighborhood; finding literature on either type of housing structure will guide my visualization selection. Here is a screenshot of my experimenting with various design choices for the housing valuation model as of late:

 
Week 7

This week I’ve spent the majority of my time working on as many housing valuation models as I can, and talked with my mentors about what questions are going to be relevant towards answering our research question in the user study. I struggled a bit with organizing my time this week, but having conversations with Professor Wole and Professor Cogburn helped ground my expectations and steer my project to the final leg of the marathon. 

The cohort returned to CUNY’s Advanced Research Center (ASRC) for the IlluminationSpace tour, where we all interacted with models and systems related to the core science fields that ASRC specializes in (nanoscience, structural biology, environmental science, photonics, and neuroscience), and it was a really fun way to expose us to the objectives of these fields and how they overlap with one another. Sabrina took advantage of our touring of ASRC’s facilities by having us demo the application she created for the REU, and Sabrina sat us down to listen to her experiences with academia; I admired her openness, especially since many of her comments on academia resonate with my own experiences.

Professor Wole also managed to host three program officers from the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program to come speak to us about the program’s purpose, its eligibility requirements, and opened the floor for questions. Professor Wole made it clear throughout the program that part of his objectives for the REU is to encourage us to consider graduate school, and introducing us to a fellowship dedicated to funding our graduate studies and research interests (which could potentially be a barrier for students who are considered low-income, and therefore may make them skeptical towards going to graduate school) was really honorable of him to do.

We ended the week with Professor Wole talking to us about the importance of statistical analysis in research, and he gave us a crash course on ANOVA. With the symposium next Thursday, I have a lot of work ahead of me, and I’m excited to see what everyone has accomplished!

Week 8

The final week began with me finally (finally) completing my user study on Google Forms; users were given context to structural racism and redlining, the procedure, and then users had the option of giving their demographic information anonymously before they were exposed to two questions regarding seventeen versions of my models. Users were tasked with answering two questions to measure their perceptions of the models, and the final section asked users to rank their preferences in terms of structural racism visualization. As of today, I have received 29 responses, so for a survey that has been live for three days, that’s pretty good! I will most likely keep my survey live closer to the deadline of one of the conferences I am applying to in August, just in case I can squeeze in more data for the poster. I also met the cohort for dinner downtown, which was a nice break from working on papers and data analysis.

Professor Wole connected with Iowa State University’s SPIRE-EIT 2023 program this week, and we met with SPIRE-EIT’s PI, Professor Stephen Gilbert, and his students and learned about the three projects they are working on, which was really cool to learn about. I also met with Professor Wole to discuss how to statistically analyze my data, and to also discuss a rather interesting comment I received in the feedback section of my survey; the comment reminded me of the kind of controversy of a project like mine elicits, but also just the nature of research in general – criticism will occur, but I plan to address that comment in my discussions. Professor Wole helped me take in the criticism by talking about his own teacher evaluation experiences, which made me feel a lot better. On Thursday, our own VR-REU symposium was hosted at Hunter, and several of the mentors, loved ones, and the SPIRE-EIT program appeared virtually to listen to our work! Below is the title slide for my presentation, and here is a link to my slides: VR-REU 2023 Symposium

 

This program has been such a tremendous experience to be a part of and so a series of thanks are in order: I want to thank each of the REU participants I met for giving me camaraderie, knowledge, and overall just a fun experience, I think they were an amazing set of people to be grouped with. I want to thank Kwame and Richard Yeung for helping me when my project hit roadblocks, and I want to thank my loved ones for supporting this journey by pushing me to apply to this program, listening to me talk about Unity, roadblocks, and random facts about Riverdale and Soundview, as well as sending out and completing my survey. I want to thank Professor Cogburn for her mentorship and guidance, especially as a Black woman in academia, and most importantly, I want to thank Professor Wole; he was an amazing PI, an insightful professor, and a great mentor, and I want to thank him for giving me a great introduction to research, academia, and for overall taking a shot on an economics major like me. 

After today, I’ll still be working on my paper and poster, and whether I get published or not, I am grateful for the valuable tools this program has given me, and I know my work towards research is only getting started. 

Final Paper:
Lisa Haye, Courtney D. Cogburn, and Oyewole Oyekoya. 2023. Exploring Perceptions of Structural Racism in Housing Valuation through 3D Visualizations. In Companion Proceedings of the 2023 Conference on Interactive Surfaces and Spaces (ISS Companion ’23). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 19–23. https://doi.org/10.1145/3626485.3626533 (Best Poster Award) – pdf

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City University of New York
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