Coming Soon to Detroit’s Blight Fight: People’s Property Dashboard
In January, Xconomy reported on the Motor City Mapping project to survey the city’s entire 139 square miles—nearly 400,000 parcels of land—and identify blighted properties in need of demolition.
Back then, a team of about 200 surveyors hit the snowy streets and spent roughly two months crisscrossing the city, using an app to catalog each parcel of land complete with a photo and identifying details. The project, mounted by Loveland Technologies and Data Driven Detroit, marked the first time Detroit’s vacant and blighted properties were systematically recorded into an updatable database.
Motor City Mapping was part of the larger Blight Removal Task Force, led by Quicken Loans chairman Dan Gilbert, Detroit Public Schools Foundation president Glenda Price, and U-Snap-Bac director Linda Smith. The task force finally released a report based on the findings of the Motor City Mapping project last week, and the numbers were staggering: There are 84,641 blighted and vacant structures in Detroit, of which 40,000 need to be cleaned up immediately due to their hazardous condition. It will cost an estimated $850 million to rid residential neighborhoods of these properties over the next five years. The price tag jumps to $2 billion if decaying commercial properties like the Packard Plant or Michigan Central Station are added to the total.
The numbers represent, without a doubt, a mind-blowing amount of work ahead for the city. However, there is much to celebrate with the announcement. For one, a big chunk of the recently announced investment in Detroit by JPMorgan Chase will be used toward blight remediation. Another $450 million in federal money has been identified for use in demolishing blighted structures, leaving a gap of about $394 million—still an astonishing amount, but much less so than $2 billion.
But perhaps more important to everyday Detroiters is what’s happening over the next three months as part of phase two of the Motor City Mapping project: The creation of a new, computerized property management system called the People’s Property Dashboard, overseen by Loveland and Data Driven Detroit, that will include a centralized list of vacant properties in Detroit. Also included will be a public feedback tool, where neighbors can weigh in on properties slated for demolition before the wrecking ball shows up and report dangerous buildings, illegal dumping, and whether blighted structures are occupied by squatters.
“That was a big piece missing before,” says Jerry Paffendorf, co-founder of Loveland Technologies. “There was no official agency on the other line. The goal is to make the data publicly available so it can be updated in the future.”
Loveland Technologies and Data Driven Detroit will work with the city’s newly established city Department of Neighborhoods and the Detroit Land Bank Authority to create the People’s Property Dashboard. It’s an undertaking that included help from Code for America and Detroit Future City, and it will eventually allow city departments to share data sets with each other and the public in a way that hasn’t been done before.
“We want neighbors to be able to say, ‘It might look like it’s empty, but we’re actually working on it.’ The city doesn’t know what neighbors know and vice-versa,” Paffendorf says. “We want people to know what list the city is working from.”
Erica Raleigh, the director of Data Driven Detroit, says phase two of Motor City Mapping represents a solution that is “light years” ahead of what the organization had before. In 2009, Data Driven Detroit, whose goal is to provide “accessible, high-quality data analysis to drive informed decision-making,” hit the streets with a team of 36 surveyors. They captured data—on paper—for 343,000 parcels. Because the process wasn’t digitized, Raleigh says it was open to mistakes.
“We had stacks and stacks of paper, so there was an opportunity for error when we entered the data from paper into the computer, another opportunity for error when we merged the data bases, and then another opportunity for error with the passage of time,” Raleigh says. “The technology provided for Motor City Mapping eliminated a lot of those concerns because we were able to look at the entries live as they were entered into the app by surveyors and do quality control on the spot.”
Raleigh says that cloud-based storage technology that wasn’t available five years ago also represents a major advance, giving Data Driven Detroit capabilities it didn’t have before. “We can run scripts to keep the data updated,” she says. What’s more, the app allows data collection over time instead of all in one rush. “If I never have to figure out how to keep 200 people safe out in six feet of snow again, I can die happy.”
All of the raw data used in the blight task force report is available for download at the Motor City Mapping website. Also available is the questionnaire that surveyors used when they went door-to-door. Paffendorf says that even though it’s just the beginning of the blight removal process, it feels good to know that something he’s put so much effort into is getting traction.
“This has been the most forward-moving, positive, let’s-get-the-job-done project between a bunch of different actors—it kind of chokes me up,” he says. “What the city thinks it knows about itself has been this precious, unsharable thing in the past. People who live in this city know all kinds of stuff the city [government] doesn’t know. Our job is to be the bridge between them.”
But Paffendorf and the rest of the Loveland crew aren’t resting on their laurels. Instead, they’re trying to figure out a way to put every property in America online in a Wikipedia-style parcel map. Last week, Loveland launched mapping efforts for 30 U.S. cities—including Xconomy cities Seattle, San Diego, Denver, New York, and Houston—on its Why Don’t We Own This website. If you’re interested in having your city mapped the way Detroit has been, Paffendorf says to drop Loveland a line at email@example.com.