Fighting Blight (w/ data)

Broken windows, caved-in roofs, and abandoned buildings have a negative effect on the way residents think and feel about their city. These — and other symptoms of blight — are more than just eyesores. Blight becomes everyone’s problem when it leads to increased crime and lower property values throughout neighborhoods. In New Orleans, blight has been a major problem since before Katrina, as the population of the city shrank from its peak in 1960. It’s also a moving target and efforts to mitigate the problem depend on up-to-date information.

City Hall has a powerful weapon to contribute to this fight: data. Data means information, and information means an informed populace that can better advocate towards outcomes that matter to them. It redefines the relationship between residents and government, allowing them to communicate on a more effective level.

Today, the Code for America New Orleans team is pleased to announce the launch of BlightStatus: BlightStatus helps residents in the fight against blight by merging live data from across multiple city departments into a simple interface that tells clear stories about individual properties, and what is being done to deal with them, in a way that anybody can understand.

Here’s how it works:

  • A property search returns all the city’s information about that property in one place.
  • A simple progress bar reduces the process down to the essential steps and provides instant context at a glance about how far that property has progressed through the overall blight process.
  • For users that want to dig deeper, a detailed log of that property’s entire case history is available.
  • To make this more useful for organizations tracking multiple properties, users can create an account and add properties to a “watchlist”.

BlightStatus stands on the shoulders of the City’s ongoing efforts to confront this problem. The City uses a legal process to prosecute blighted properties, sell them, or demolish them, with the ultimate goal of putting them back into commerce. Engaged residents, neighborhood groups, and non-profits work to redevelop properties, track down absentee landlords, and work with owners to improve their buildings. Many of them spend hours a week keeping tabs on what’s going on around them: attending city meetings, conducting surveys, and doing research on city and county websites. They organize the information they’ve found using maps, Word documents, and spreadsheets.

The problem with this is that the information they want already exists within City Hall. It’s just so difficult for to track down and make sense of, that it feels like a better use of their time to re-survey their neighborhood themselves.

BlightStatus didn’t require the city to upgrade underlying software or restructure the city’s entire data supply chain. Instead, it sits on top of the existing systems and makes them work together. This means that for the first time, everything that the city knows about a property, citizens will know as well, in real time.

As United States Chief Technology Officer Todd Park likes to say: “You can’t eat data.” By itself, BlightStatus will not mow overgrown lawns, paint over graffiti, or transition vacant buildings. But it represents a bridge between efforts in both the city and community that can help them move forward together. This tool gives both those in government and outside of it access to the same information. Instead of exerting energy trying to figure out what’s happening, they can work towards actually improving what’s happening.

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