Motor City Mapping Tackles Urban Blight Using Loveland Tech
A new day seemed to be dawning in Detroit when Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert paraphrased 50 Cent and told an audience at Marygrove College that Detroit’s recently announced urban blight task force is “going to get this done or we are going to die trying.”
The bold statement made last month was a welcome change for Detroiters, where urban decay is one of those persistent structural issues—like the thousands of streetlights that don’t work, or the murder rate—that residents have had to endure year after year, mayor after mayor, with seemingly no serious will to find solutions in sight.
Gilbert is the co-chair of the Detroit Blight Task Force, a public-private entity announced in September that is charged with developing a plan to remove every blighted structure in Detroit, as quickly and as environmentally consciously as possible.
What makes the Detroit Blight Task Force different from past, half-hearted attempts at blight removal is the sheer number of resources involved. Last fall, the Obama administration announced that $300 million in federal and private funding would go toward Detroit for blight removal, transit and public safety improvements, and business development.
Equally impressive are the task force’s partners: the U.S. departments of Treasury and Housing and Urban Development, the Kresge Foundation, the Skillman Foundation, Rock Ventures (Quicken Loans’ umbrella company, which is also one of Detroit’s biggest landowners), the city of Detroit and its Emergency Financial Manager’s office, and various state and local community development organizations.
But perhaps most encouraging from an innovation standpoint is that nonprofit organization Data Driven Detroit and local startup Loveland Technologies are leading the $1.5 million Motor City Mapping effort to survey the city’s entire 139 square miles—some 400,000 parcels of land—to identify blighted properties in need of demolition.
Loveland founder Jerry Paffendorf moved to Detroit from San Francisco in 2009 with a desire to make a difference. Loveland began an ambitious project to digitally map the vacant properties up for sale at the Wayne County Foreclosure Auction. Incredibly, until Loveland began its work, that kind of information was unavailable to the public online.
One thing that is both exciting and maddening about Detroit is how many innovators like Paffendorf are working independently to find solutions to the city’s biggest obstacles because, they believe, the local government can’t or won’t take it on. To now have a well-funded effort to hire the people in the community who are already hard at work solving the very problem the city is trying to address marks a significant change, and one that bodes well for Detroit’s future.
Regarding Detroit’s blight, Paffendorf says, “Everyone knows it’s out there, but there’s no data that shows how many properties are blighted and where they are; the size of the problem and the money it will take to fix it; and which properties can be reinhabited. The pitch to the task force was to photograph and survey every property in the city to create an updatable database.”
Working out of a “mission control” office in TechTown, Motor City Mapping is sending more than 100 surveyors out to every corner of the city armed with tablets and a Loveland app to photograph each property and enter in as much information about it as possible.
Loveland originally built the app, called Blexting, to survey all of the properties up for the auction by Wayne County in 2013. “But it was only six of us with no support,” Paffendorf explains. “There’s a really big difference between doing this independently and with support. Data Driven Detroit did a paper-based survey in 2009, and that was a big effort but it wasn’t digitally updatable and there were no photos. There isn’t really any information to start with except for property boundaries and addresses.”
Paffendorf says a crew at mission control watches the individual property records entered into the app by surveyors “like a Twitter feed” and does spot quality control checks. If something is wrong, they call surveyors in the field to make an immediate correction.
So far, 111,000 properties have been surveyed and if it would just stop snowing, Paffendorf believes the job will be finished by February. After that, the data will be reviewed, errors will be fixed, and then it will be presented to the public.
“There’s an awareness by the whole team that this is just a windshield survey, and it’s impossible to know everything,” Paffendorf says. “But we’ll turn the data inside out so people can correct wrong information or use it for city planning.”
It’s a huge effort, and Paffendorf is clearly thrilled to be a part of it. (He’s also in need of a local Ruby programmer with an interest in mapping; contact Loveland if you’re interested in the job.) He hopes that what comes out of the Motor City Mapping project is a “legacy system” that allows Detroiters to have a constantly updatable database that can be expanded to other blighted cities in Michigan.
“Some of these really huge problems like blight are partially caused by problems with information,” he adds. “You can’t fix things until you can see fully what’s going on. It’s a breath of relief—there it all is, and now we can start to work on it. You start to feel empowered instead of living in mucky confusion.”
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