Weitzman News

Remembering Ken Steif

The Weitzman School is collecting tributes from colleagues and students, past and present, to late faculty member Ken Steif. If you'd like to add your voice, contact news@design.upenn.edu.

Read the obituary from WHYY's PlanPhilly: "Remembering Ken Steif, an urban planner who used data to make cities more just."

Read the obituary from the Penn Almanac, "Ken Steif, MUSA."

Fritz Steiner, Dean and Paley Professor

Ken was a member of the Weitzman family since coming to the School for his MUSA degree in 2008. After receiving his degree, he founded Urban Spatial, a consultancy at the intersection of data science and public policy, and then earned a PhD in City and Regional Planning in 2015. He was at the forefront of data-driven public policy for nearly 20 years, combining his technical knowledge of Geographic Information Systems and applied statistics with an interest in housing policy, child welfare, education, the economics of neighborhood change, transportation policy and more. 

His role as director of the MUSA Program has been nothing short of transformative. He deftly shifted the program’s emphasis from GIS to civic technology, enabling students to develop technology and governance solutions to solve today’s most complex public policy problems. During his tenure, he has made many essential contributions to the Weitzman mission, particularly in the areas of the costs and benefits of gentrification, the Philadelphia school crisis, the connection between good schools and neighborhood economic development, the use of machine learning to help democratize the planning process. This summer saw the publication of his latest book, Public Policy Analytics: Code & Context for Data Science in Government. As Allison Lassiter, Ken’s colleague in the Department of City and Regional Planning, says, “There is no better guide to data science in the public realm!”

In short, Ken was an incredible colleague and mentor, a tireless champion for GIS and for Penn, and he will be deeply missed.

John Landis, Professor Emeritus and Former Chair, Department of City and Regional Planning

I first met Ken Steif in the fall of 2008.  I had just been asked to take over the MUSA program and Ken was an incoming student.  Right from the outset, I could tell that Ken was special.  Besides showing a full head of curly hair, Ken had a fierce intelligence and incredible curiosity.  He was hungry to learn as much as he possibly could, and to put what he learned to work for his beloved Philadelphia. 

Ken was also really funny.  He had a rich sense of humor and that nuanced sense of irony that comes with empathy.  Ken was able to put himself in someone else’s shoes (well, except for the shoes of a New York sports fan) which enabled him to appreciate people for themselves.  Ken had intense opinions of his own about many things, but because he valued difference, he was always more interested in hearing other people’s opinions.  Ken liked to debate and argue, but always in a non-judgmental way, and at the end of any discussion with Ken—which could take five minutes or an hour—I always found myself thinking, that was fun, and that Ken and I had each learned something that perhaps we hadn’t known at the outset of our discussion.  This was Ken’s great gift, that he liked and appreciated people for who they were, not for their roles or positions.  Many a time Ken would shoo me out of his office because he was in the midst of office hours or an extended discussion with a student he just met, and to Ken right then, that student was the most important person in the world.

Ken was also intensely loyal to Philadelphia, to Penn and Temple, and to his friends and students.  Ken loved to learn and he loved to teach, and for him, working with students—helping them to see something for the first time or solving a problem or making a critical connection—was the thing that brought him the greatest pleasure and satisfaction. 

When we recruited Ken to run the MUSA program, we knew he would do a great job.  What we weren’t prepared for was how utterly he would transform and modernize MUSA.  Ken took a good GIS program and transformed it into a state-of-the-art spatial data science program that inserted intelligence into the heart of urban communities for the benefit of their citizens.  Think about all that this mission entails:  intelligence—making people smarter, more open, and more effective; community—making sure that the benefits of whatever initiative is undertook accrues foremost to those who have the least; and citizens—the idea that being informed makes one a more productive part of the community.  Ken always claimed he was first and foremost a “data nerd,” but that wasn’t really true.  Ken was actually a community change nerd, and Ken’s profound commitment to making things better drew students and colleagues alike to him.  Ken subtitled his book, of which he was so justifiably proud, Code and Context, but he could have just as easily called it, Code and Community.

Above all, Ken loved his family, Diana, Emil, and Malcolm.  He often told me of how lucky he was to have found his life’s partner in Diana, and of his pride in his two boys.  Ken was looking forward to immersing Emil and Malcolm into what can only be called the cult of [New York and] Philadelphia sports teams, just as he was looking forward to watching them go to school, grow up, and establish their own life paths; and it is the ultimate unfairness of the disease that took Ken from us that he won’t have the opportunity to do so.

I admired so many things about Ken: his curiosity, his appreciation of others’ perspectives, his loyalty and dedication to his students and community, and of course, his love for his family.  But I think what I admired most about Ken was his dignity—revealed every day as he battled his disease—and his appreciation for the dignity of others. When I first met Ken in 2008, I knew he was special.  What I couldn’t foresee was just his specialness would make all of our lives so much richer.

Eugenie L. Birch, Lawrence C. Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research & Education and Graduate Group Chair, Department of City and Regional Planning

Ken was incredible. 

When it came time for him to choose the subject of his dissertation that I had the honor of supervising, he knew what he wanted,  he knew how to get it and in no time, he did it. He was the perfect director of the MUSA program. He had the same approach as with his dissertation, he knew what the students would need to be competitive in this emerging field, he knew how to get it, and in no time, he did it. The MUSA alumni are now engaged in important work in many venues, all employing the knowledge he so generously gave them.  Beyond his lovely family, this is one of his most important legacies. Ken was a masterful leader of the University-wide MUSA Advisory Committee with whom he shared his guidance of the MUSA program. He showed them how he brainstormed the multiple workshops and master classes to which he brought hundreds of students to the Lower Gallery to learn the latest from practitioners and researchers from around the country. 

Besides these extraordinary accomplishments, Ken was the bravest man on the planet. He faced his disease with calm determination and even humor. Remarkably, he continued his personal and professional  pursuits without interrupting his stride.  

I know we will remember him with great admiration and affection and wish that he had more time….

Michael Fichman, Lecturer and Acting Director, MUSA; Researcher, PennPraxis

Kenny Steif was what we call in the Jewish culture a Tzadik—a righteous man. Although his work was manifested as computer code and policy concepts and maps, it was really about justice. In his work he wanted to bring a better life to people he’d never met, and he chose to use technology as his medium.

His achievements are voluminous for somebody who only lived to 38, but the benefits accrued to everybody around him—his family, his friends, his students, his West Philly community, and the public. His love and care for others made so many around him better. He was a colleague and mentor and friend to so many.

He turned the MUSA program into the cutting edge program of its kind. He saw that the future of our society and our cities was wrapped up in the emergence of technology and data. He saw the opportunities and the risks. He worked to stake out an alternate path of good and public benefit using the same technologies many use to degrade and confuse our society. He urged understanding, compassion, and “domain knowledge” as a corrective to blunt misuse of data and algorithms.

The MUSA program will carry on as Ken’s legacy, as Professor Harris and I teach the book Ken wrote that was a product of our years-long classroom collaborations. The governments and NGOs that have come to depend on our student practicum for innovative proof-of-concept projects are as involved as ever. The community of alums and adjuncts is a source of continuing camaraderie and support. Most of all, the City of Philadelphia, and governments at home and abroad are counting on us to supply them with the phenomenal, well-trained students they have come to rely on.

I am so glad Ken asked me work with him. After a decade of friendship he encouraged me to come to Penn, first as a fellow student and then as a lecturer. It was from Ken I learned the arts of teaching, consulting and mentorship. Perhaps this was a good turn after I tutored him on the GRE and mathematics. That experience was one which I relate to our students—Professor Steif, your role model, your mentor, couldn’t do math. You too can achieve great things, no matter how much you disbelieve in your own abilities. He overcame that, as he overcame everything he chose to confront, save for the vicious disease that he battled with immense drive and spirit for 8 years. Life isn’t fair. 

Kenny was a truly multi-dimensional person. His musical acumen, his athletic zeal, his poker playing ability, his enthusiasm for hiking and camping, his love of community and family—I was fortunate to see all these sides of him. They were as dynamic and important as those parts of him which most of those at Penn might have observed.

Everything he did was a product of a wonderful partnership with his wife Diana. His degree, his projects, his publications—they were all a product of the mutual support they gave each other and the sacrifices she made. In his last months and days, she was an utterly inspiring figure—and I’ve never been so privileged to see such poise and grace.

Ken will be dearly missed by so many. His passing is truly a tragedy, but we were all very lucky to have known him. We should seize the opportunity to let his inspirational time on this earth guide us into a great future.

Burhan Ahmad Wani, First-Year MUSA Student

I got to know Professor Steif when I was exploring the Spatial Analysis Courses available in the USA. While exploring the MUSA Program, the research being done at MUSA was impressive, especially projects like “Prioritizing Fire Hydrant Inspections in Philadelphia” and “Scooter Equity and Demand Analysis” 

I very much enjoyed reading these projects and got in touch with Professor Steif to discuss the same. And, because of these interactions, I applied for the MUSA Program for Fall 2021. And fortunately, I was accepted into the program.

My first virtual interaction with Professor Steif was when I attended his webinar on “Geospatial ML Workshop” in June this year. During the talk, I could gather he was humble, compassionate, kind & an intelligent guy.

It is still difficult for me to comprehend that my time with Professor Steif was limited. And it is hard to accept a sudden death like this. But, the precious memories of you will always remain in our hearts, guiding us at every step in life. 

Lastly, I pray for his departed soul, and may God give strength to his family.