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How Digital Mapping Is Helping Detroit Fight Urban Blight

As previously functioning urban areas fall into disrepair, urban blight increasingly is afflicting cities across the United States. Characterized by high local unemployment and crime, political disenfranchisement and depopulation, in some of these areas the endless blocks of abandoned buildings seems like scenes out of a post-apocalyptic movie.

Dozens of major cities across the nation suffer from varying degrees of urban blight, but Detroit is the most infamous. Once the richest city in the world, Detroit formed the backbone of the Arsenal of Democracy that helped the Allies win World War II. Today, however, it has become America’s “Dystopian City.” Since its zenith, Detroit's population has fallen 63 percent, from 1.85 million residents in 1950 to just over 700,000 today. Despite a recent rise in mission-driven startups, incubators and industrial collaborations, the city still faces a $162 million operating deficit and is more than $18 billion in debt.

Although there are countless socioeconomic reasons for the relentless spread of Detroit’s urban blight, a significant reason the city has been unable to stem it is due to the lack of a comprehensive system for regularly counting the number of blighted properties within its boundaries — doing so in a conventional manner requires investing resources the city simply doesn’t have.

But an unconventional method might prove to be the answer. Information communication technologies (ICTs) can offer a cost-effective method for tracking urban blight so that Detroit can take steps to reduce it.

To this end, Detroit-based Loveland Technology has partnered with JPMorgan Chase and the Detroit Land Bank Authority to develop a new solution to map, catalogue and manage hundreds of thousands of blighted properties in Detroit.

The Motor City Mapping (MCM) project uses so-called “blexting” technology to track every residential property in Detroit — including those that are blighted — by going neighborhood to neighborhood uploading images and information from their phones or tablets. With $1 million in support from JPMorgan Chase, any citizen with a smartphone is able to “blext” information directly to the city and hundreds of ancillary datasets are now connected and being managed for the first time.

MCM is an effort to provide updated information on the condition and occupancy of all 386,000 properties in Detroit, according to Jerry Paffendorf, co-founder and CEO of Loveland Technology. The partnership includes teams of data analysts, software developers, community organizations, city departments and the Land Bank all working together to create a picture of Detroit that's never been seen before, and to constantly improve that picture over time.

The program uses a combination of openly crowdsourced and professionally gathered information to keep things updated, Paffendorf said. While anyone can correct and contribute information, a team of dedicated surveyors makes sure that new information is always being added, and that all contributions are reviewed and quality-controlled.

So far, the Land Bank has been able to demolish more than 4,000 dilapidated structures, auction off hundreds of homes to people who will rehab them, and start selling more than 2,000 vacant properties to neighborhood residents.

Public-private partnerships such as MCM are empowering city governments to take action where they once were constricted by limited resources. JPMorgan Chase, for example, has made a five-year, $100 million commitment to Detroit’s economic recovery, which includes the $1 million to MCM.

“Data and technology have the potential to drive the most impactful solutions to economic challenges in our cities,” Peter Scher, head of corporate responsibility at JPMorgan Chase, told Sustainable Brands. “Detroit is a city where powerful collaborations among its stakeholders are making a difference.”

But solutions such as MCM only can work if city leadership is willing to be creative and practical, Scher said. It is working in Detroit because the program has support from the mayor, leadership in the neighborhoods and the business community.

Since MCM and other programs aimed at reversing urban blight launched, there’s been a new sense of confidence in Detroit, according to Paffendorf. There are many signs of the city’s renewal — in its repaired streetlights, its new businesses and entrepreneurs, the construction of the M1 rail line — and when there’s confidence, there’s optimism and a climate that welcomes investment and innovation.

“Many organizations, like Loveland and JPMorgan Chase, are working to help Detroit’s economy get on the right track,” Paffendorf said. “By working together, Detroit’s future will include vibrant neighborhoods, higher and more stable property values and more people buying homes in the city.”

But an influx of quality data won’t make urban blight disappear overnight, Paffendorf warned.

“It takes money, effort, planning and time,” he said. “Successes have been made and there is a great system in place, but there is still an incredible amount to accomplish.”

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