Today the Code for America Fellowship team in South Bend, Ind. is excited to introduce CityVoice, a voice-based application for gathering community feedback about vacant and abandoned properties. Like many American cities, South Bend experienced a decline in population toward the end of the last century as the economy shifted away from manufacturing and factories that once produced icons, like the Studebaker automobile, closed down. This left the city with excess housing stock whose condition deteriorated over time. While the city has a bright future with smaller scale manufacturing, through technology transfer from researchers at nearby Notre Dame University and Indiana University South Bend, and as a broadband internet hub, the city is still grappling with this legacy infrastructure.
While the three of us, Reed, Dave and myself, were living in South Bend for the month of February, Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced an ambitious initiative to address 1000 vacant and abandoned homes in 1000 days. The initial reception was mixed. Some neighbors were eager to see nearby properties addressed, while others expressed concern that demolition was the City’s primary focus, particularly in African-American neighborhoods that have long experienced disinvestment. After meeting with the City Code Enforcement and Community Investment departments and numerous community groups, our team identified a role for technology in educating residents about the initiative and ensuring that priorities of neighbors are reflected in the City’s actions.
We want to gather input from residents who would be most affected by the initiative, so are primarily promoting the project through signs placed on abandoned properties. Of the approximately 1100 homes included in the initiative, some are in such a state of disrepair that demolition is a necessity, while others have relatively minor violations that could be addressed with minimal effort and expense. Our project targets approximately 250 borderline properties where community feedback will have the most impact in determining whether a property should be repaired or removed.
It needs to be easy for community members to make their voices heard. For people with mobility problems, juggling one or more jobs, or who need childcare, it can be difficult to attend daytime hearings or evening community meetings. Abandoned homes are largely concentrated in economically distressed neighborhoods where many residents don’t have regular access to the internet.
Initially we looked at building a tool that communicates through text messages, but early testing and user research revealed that many residents—especially older adults, who were often the most engaged—were not experienced at interacting this way. For those on pay-as-you-go plans, sending and receiving multiple texts can also become costly. In order to be as inclusive as possible, we settled on the good old-fashioned phone call as the primary means of sharing information.
Built using Twilio’s interactive voice response (IVR) system, CityVoice works by having residents call a phone number and enter a unique property ID code (found on the lawn sign at the property). Callers are prompted to indicate whether they would like to see the property repaired or removed. They then have a minute in which to share any additional thoughts about the property, including why they’d like to see that outcome, or what their vision is for the future. They also have the option to share their number with the City for follow-up.
This feedback is channeled to the Code Enforcement inspector assigned to that area, who can respond as needed. The structured input about whether to repair or remove will be considered alongside other information as Code Enforcement makes recommendations about how to address the property. Those properties where many neighbors unanimously agree that a property should be removed—take this example, which neighbors characterize as a former meth house—might be prioritized for demolition. Community Investment is able to direct neighbors interested in acquiring a property to appropriate resources.
Although we’re gathering feedback over the phone, the project has an accompanying website, http://SouthBendVoices.com, where visitors can learn more about the initiative, browse a map, or search for properties by address. On the property page, users can find information about the current status of the property, see the results of the poll, and listen to their neighbors’ thoughts. We’ll soon be adding these same capabilities to the phone line, so that even users without web access can easily get updates on what’s happening in nearby.
Above all, however, we’re excited that CityVoice is starting conversations not just between residents and the City, but between neighbors.
Over last weekend we placed signs on properties and within just 24 hours we had more than 50 calls. One neighbor even called in twice—first to register her support for repair, and then to change her opinion to remove after discussing the property with her neighbors, a few of whom had also called in. We hope that this is just the beginning of such dialogues in South Bend, and potentially elsewhere.
We’re formally launching CityVoice today: http://SouthBendVoices.com
We’d like to thank those people and organizations who’ve supported us through this process: funders AT&T, the Community Foundation of St. Joseph County, First Source Bank, the Judd Leighton Foundation, Memorial Health System, St. Joseph Regional Medical Center, and Teachers Credit Union; our city partners Kathryn Roos, Kris Priemer, Shubhada Kambli, Brian Haygood and Liz Maradik; Rey Hernandez and the Monroe Park Neighborhood Association for helping us to run a pilot in their community; Diana Hess and the Neighborhood Resource Corporation; all of the volunteers who helped us put up signs; and Hilary Hoeber and Tom Lee on our product advisory board, along with the Code for America Fellows and staff.
Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.