Errors undermine data in Palo Alto's new business registry

City urged to add more resources to address flaws in new system

When Palo Alto launched its business registry last year, the goal was to gather data about employees' parking and commuting habits -- information that would help city officials design new transportation programs and land-use policies.

Last week, as the city released employee information from the registry, one conclusion quickly emerged: The data isn't very reliable.

According to a report from the office of City Manager James Keene, staff believes about 93 percent of businesses (2,606 out of 2,797) have complied with the registration requirement. The number does not include those businesses that are not required to register -- namely, home-based businesses and "transitory businesses" with corporate offices outside the city. This includes 954 downtown businesses representing 15,641 employees.

But while the rate of participation is deemed high, some of the numbers in the registry don't add up. Several companies had elected to register twice while others didn't register at all. In some cases, companies greatly overstated their "total square footage" or misstated their parking spaces. In a report released last week, city staff note that the data is based on "self-reported figures that have been through only a basic level of staff analysis/quality control."

"Although some errors related to multiple registrations were removed, additional errors are likely to be included in the data set," the report notes. "However, with 93 percent of businesses registered (and likely a larger percentage of the overall employment), the data is representative of the businesses in Palo Alto required to register."

For local watchdogs, the errors in the registry were easy to spot. Consider the case of 550 Hamilton Ave., a downtown building that according to the registry houses more than two dozen businesses (most of them medical offices and professional services).

In most cases, the companies at 550 Hamilton Ave. report their "total square footage" to be between a few hundred square feet and about 1,500 square feet. But, as resident Jeff Levinsky discovered while poring over the data, there are some anomalies. Quartzy, a lab-management company with 0-25 employees, claims a total square footage of 35,678 square feet, Levinsky observed. If this is accurate, this would come out to more than 1,000 square feet of space per employee -- a highly unlikely scenario.

Hamilton-Webster Building, LLC, which lists the same employee range as Quartzy, also reported total square footage of 35,678. Given that the entire building at Hamilton and Webster is 42,000 square feet in size, both companies cannot be right (as partial compensation for this overstatement, two medical practitioners in this building reported their respective total square footage as 0 and 1).

While anomalies are one problem, omissions are another. Levinsky noted in a statement to the City Council this week that Safeway is missing from the registry, despite the fact that it's one of the city's largest grocery stores and one of Midtown's most prominent employers. Also missing is Caffe Riace, a restaurant near the California Avenue area that is best known among land-use watchdogs for its expansive patio (which was originally constructed as a "public benefit" for a nearby residential development but subsequently taken over by the restaurant), Levinsky noted. You also won't find McDonald's in the registry, even though its famous double arches are displayed prominently on El Camino Real.

Other businesses appear to have gone beyond the call of duty and registered more than once. The registry shows two entries for the marketing firm ShareThis, located on Miranda Avenue. Levinsky also observed that The Epiphany Hotel registered twice (once under the name of its management company).

Levinsky also observed that in some cases, the square footage appears to be greatly exaggerated. Volvo Palo Alto, for instance, lists as its square footage an eye-popping 259,000 square feet, which Levinsky noted is five times the size of the dealership lot. The problems in the registry data, Levinsky said, are obvious.

"It's not a reliable basis for any policy making," Levinsky said.

While the staff report suggests that the data, while imperfect, is "representative" of the business community, the discrepancies make it difficult to draw firm conclusions. Among the big questions that the registry is supposed to help answer is: How much space does a typical employee take up? Currently, the city's parking requirements assume about 250 square feet per employee. Some residents have long maintained that employee density is much higher at downtown startups, which often eschew traditional offices and cubicles in favor of open-plan layouts and tables crowded with software engineers.

The business registry suggests that downtown offices have an employee density of 394 square feet per worker, which belies the common notion that today's workspaces are more crowded. But a closer look at the numbers makes this conclusion seem less than ironclad.

For many of downtown's startups and mid-sized companies, the data can be too broad to enable specific conclusions. RelateIQ, a subsidiary of Salesforce, is located at 502 Emerson St., a block between University and Hamilton avenues that is the home to an eclectic group of retailers, restaurants and startups. The registry shows RelateIQ's total square footage at 46,545 square feet and its employee count at between 101 and 500.

This means that its space per employee is somewhere between 93 square feet and 465 square feet -- a range that does little to clear up the ongoing debate over employee density. Furthermore, while staff analysis notes that employee densities vary widely from one company to another, the report also notes that about 88 companies had less than 100 square feet per employee.

Neilson Buchanan, a Downtown North resident who has been heavily involved in the establishment of downtown's parking-permit program, also studied the registry data and noticed its many flaws. In addressing the council Monday, Buchanan emphasized the critical importance of gathering good data and urged the council to add staff resources to collecting and reviewing the data.

To date, he said, city staff has been "fighting with one hand tied behind their backs with the lack of resources." He urged the council and its Finance Committee to pay careful attention to address the resource shortage.

"I pored over the integrity of data," Buchanan said. "You don't want to dig too deeply into it."

Thomas Fehrenbach, the city's economic development manager, told the Weekly that the data is is still in its "preliminary, raw state." As the city adds resources and expertise in data quality, the registry "will tell a more accurate picture." Given the great interest in the data, he said, the city wanted to release it to the public even though there has been very little applied to it in terms of quality control.

"It's a valuable set of data about the business community, but as you break it down to granularity, its usefulness is not quite where we'd ultimately want it to be to draw conclusions," Fehrenbach said.


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18 people like this
Posted by Roger Overnaut
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 22, 2016 at 1:54 pm

Sigh. It is easy to call ourselves the intellectual capital of Silicon Valley. Being it is another thing.

9 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 23, 2016 at 8:29 am

So there are errors in the data. A little analysis should be able to identify those companies with likely errors. How hard would it be to contact them via email and ask them to provide corrections?

The owners of the buildings also could be contacted to help obtain more accurate space occupied by these companies.

Data is always "dirty" in the beginning. If the people on the City staff can't figure out how to deal with this--maybe they are the wrong people to be running this program.

18 people like this
Posted by who cares?
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 23, 2016 at 10:00 am

Does it really matter what a company's square footage per employee is? The more important thing to know from a transportation point of view is how many employees there are, how they're commuting to and from work, and how many on-site parking spots the employer provides.

13 people like this
Posted by Neilson Buchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 23, 2016 at 10:54 am

Hi to "Who Cares"

I agree with you. The launch of the biz registry was deliberately imperfect despite citizen appeal to identify needs first and then design the system. Instead the Council and Staff embraced a timid approach of political accommodation and avoidance. The most fundamental data element is anonymous employee zip code so that fundamental transportation demand management(TDM) would evolve. I do acknowledge that many employers could not supply zip code but aggregated zip codes of any amount would be cornerstone of any TDM effort. Principle of continuous improvement would result in quality database within a few years.

There are fundamental other problems to consider at this time. For example, city staff admittedly never had resources and skill sets to manage the registry database. It is not the "fault" of lower level city staff; they are not the root cause. The floundering Transportation Management Association (TMA) is out of sync in terms of funding and a basic business plan. In an act of compassion, City staff and Council permitted small businesses to opt out of the registry. As a result, these very important, small businesses are eliminated and disenfranchised from analysis and policy making. Finally, dont get me started on the inability for city government to enforce registry participation with meaningful carrots and sticks.

12 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 23, 2016 at 11:38 am

Why would City expect that self-reported numbers to be accurate?? First they expect the businesses to pay you a fee, and then they expect them to give them accurate information? If the City wants accurate information, the City should pay to get it.

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 23, 2016 at 12:32 pm

I think the square footage is a valid question as it relates to how many people can work in the space, maximum. Many companies fluctuate very quickly with the number of employees and many use part timers, job sharers and permanent subs, as well as contractors who are not counted as employees. A contractor can work long term for the same company as can a sub.

The problem with a questionnaire like this is that it takes up somebody's time and is classed as a nuisance by many companies. If an employee spends too long on answering these questions by being completely accurate that employee is not doing what the employer is wanting to pay the salary for. In a large company the amount of work it takes to do this is longer, but they can probably afford to allow somebody to do a timewasting task. In a smaller company it is probably just timewasting for someone who could be using the time to be more productive.

I would say that this information is very low on the priority list of most businesses and they want to get it done and out of the way as quickly as possible.

7 people like this
Posted by No surprise
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 23, 2016 at 2:51 pm

When the questionnaire was originally shown online, I was incredulous. It was so detailed and intrusive, it was obvious very few businesses would respond. I wouldn't.
If you want people to respond you have to make it easy for them. Don't attack. Basic rule.
Especially since you are just beginning to establish a database. The extreme detail is a problem for the analysis of course.
The city manager has given every indication that he does not want to do this, and he sets up roadblocks again and again. This one was Designed to Fail.

For example, at first you don't need zipcodes. Just ask, how does the employee get to work? drive, walk, bike, RR, bus, etc.
I don't know whether they need more staff, god knows there are so many consultants already.What is/was needed is EXPERTISE and the INTENTION to get it right.

9 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 23, 2016 at 3:42 pm

"Why would City expect that self-reported numbers to be accurate??"

Every real business knows how many square feet it is paying rent for and how many people are on its payroll. Since the 1980s computer-literate firms have had that and much other information on databases from which any desired data can be extracted instantly and rapidly collated by any computer-literate employee.

Are you saying that our local self-vaunted bleeding-edge high-tech enterprises lack basic computer literacy?

(Not that I'm arguing with you.)

7 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 23, 2016 at 10:59 pm

> For example, city staff admittedly never had resources and skill sets
> to manage the registry database.

A database that Palo Alto needs to begin to model, and eventually manage, traffic issues around town is not all that difficult to design and implement, unless those involved have never done this sort of work in the past.

There is no reason that the City Manager could not have assigned an IT person for a week, or so, to help get the design off the ground. To suggest that the City does not have the resources to do this work makes no sense.

Of course, it would pay to actually have a game plan for such a data base--a game plan which provides some sense of what the database is supposed to provide in terms of decision support.

6 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 23, 2016 at 11:11 pm

"To suggest that the City does not have the resources to do this work makes no sense."

It ain't the resources, it's the incentive. This kind of objective compilation of facts to base future planning decisions on just ain't sexy and, much worse, it could get in the way of a lot of desired outcomes.

The flesh is willing but the spirit is weak.

8 people like this
Posted by History Buff
a resident of another community
on Apr 24, 2016 at 10:53 am

How does Fehrenbach keep his job?

He started in August 2012 at a base salary of $123,053. His has a BS in social sciences with a focus on HR. He was "relationship manager at Borel Private Bank & Trust Co. and former chairman of the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. ...In recent civic issues, Fehrenbach opposed a business license tax that went down to defeat last year ..."
Web Link

Four years later, this unreliable registry is what he's produced.

8 people like this
Posted by SimpleCleanup
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 24, 2016 at 11:08 am

Many of the errors can be identified with some simple tests - like looking at total sq ft claimed at each address. These tests can be saved and used to validate future data more quickly and easily. Does not require a lot of people - just data quality checks

10 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 24, 2016 at 11:14 am

"...As the city adds resources and expertise ..."

So now the bad data is justification to hire more incompetent people. This going to become a multi-million dollar boondoggle with 10's of new city workers.

And each time someone looks at the data and points out problems, it will justification to hire more people.


7 people like this
Posted by No surprise
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 24, 2016 at 12:23 pm

In a town that claims to have so much IT expertise, and nearby towns with similar databases to ask for advice, there is no excuse for this not working well. Managing large databases is not an obscure skill.
Just ask Palantir to help :)

The city manager has given every indication that he does not want to do this. This one was Designed to Fail.

5 people like this
Posted by Purpose
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 24, 2016 at 6:42 pm

If a purpose for the registry is for data for Transportation Management Authority of car trips in Palo Alto, it leaves out an entire category of In-Home Support Services employees, disability care providers, respite agencies, home health aides, aides sent by County, school district, etc. This is a lot of trips. They are necessary. After driving to the home, the employee might run errands like picking up a prescription, taking client to doctor, adding even more trips. Any kind of fixed location registry will not capture these employees. They also don't earn much so they are too far under the radar.

3 people like this
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 25, 2016 at 3:28 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

The whole thing started out with bad data.
We got a (second) letter because we ignored the first one.
Our former Home based business had been closed for over 5 years.
WHERE DID THEY GET THIS DATA? (And how much did it cost US?)

The instructions may also be less than clear.
A car dealership report includes the entire LOT? Not all those cars commute (or even are registered).
Building tenants reporting full Building/parking lot size even though they do not have the entire property.

A couple of the named 'No reply' business are OWNED by out of town corporations. If the form did not have a proper Mail Stop ????

This is just another poorly plan program

10 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 25, 2016 at 3:39 pm

Isn't there any way to hold the city manager and city staff accountable for being incompetent? No excuse that they now need more money, more staff.

I'm not addressing the question of whether the business registry is a good idea or not, just that this is another example of the staff's incompetence.


8 people like this
Posted by Roger Overnaut
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 25, 2016 at 4:06 pm

The city manager is responsible for recruiting and maintaining a competent city staff. The city council has the nominal responsibility to recruit, direct, evaluate, and if necessary upgrade the city manager.

I say nominal because, about a decade ago, city manager Frank Benest had the council outsource his annual job evaluation to an outside paid consultant. The councilmembers meekly complied because nobody dared offend Frank--he might leave us and go grace some other city.

That arrangement continues. As a result, there is no effective oversight of city staff by our elected representatives.

4 people like this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 26, 2016 at 8:03 am

just wow!

4 people like this
Posted by solongtoo
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 26, 2016 at 11:28 am

1. every problem is solved with more taxes spending staff
2. government has right to all your information
3. govenrment can decide programs without plan, goals, objectives
4. no accountability for any individual employee
5. never use "market" methods
6. never use "price" information, dirty "capitalistic" concepts
7. "progessive" government means exactly ever bigger goverment, ever smaller freedom
8. wealth is created by government,, not by individuals in an expression of freedom and liberty, who wish to risk investment,take chances,work hard,and maybe earn money for themselves and hope to keep most of it
9 Cuba is ideal of progressive government, where business are not allowed to have employees in general!
10 government is right, you are wrong. 43 years in prison for DA coverup? sorry. Police lied to get false confession from innocent teen? hey, police have a right to lie in an investigation ... but you do not.
11 Get a ticket in parking zone even with permit? sorry pay it,no appeal process they said. oooops. well, the government needs (wants) the money more than me.

12 illegal for waiter to offer me a glass of water at restaurant .. and this is discussed as a "drought" issue, not a "liberty" issue? amazing.13 so why not have individuals "confess" to owning a business or having "wealth" ?? will this be an "inventory" to be later "confiscated?"

13 $100 million dollar item on "consent"calendar?" no citizen vote????

14 AVERAGE new property tax 1.2 percent of 2.3 million is $27,600?? who can pay this for how long? will be addicted to this level?

BIG government is GOOD, BIGGER government is GOODER

2 people like this
Posted by Gus L.
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 27, 2016 at 9:07 pm

Its just another Tax.. Palo Alto never needed it before, they don't need it now.. They just want the bureaucracy and money..

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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