Analysis of VacantFinder

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My work with English Avenue has broadened in the last few weeks since my previous paper, now including collaboration with the City of Atlanta. In late February, I took their concerns and goals to Govathon, a hackathon hosted by the city government to build digital services based on local needs in about 15 hours. At Govathon, I worked with a team of developers and Atlanta’s Department of Planning and Community Development to build a service that would help discover and record data on vacant properties. From my research data, I found that impoverished communities often coincide with rampant property abandonment. I suggested we gear the service toward residents of these communities, allowing them to directly participate in their government and contribute data about their own neighborhood, instead of an external government trying to reach into it.

Our solution after about 12 hours was a framework for reporting and mapping vacant and abandoned properties. According to my research data, residents of these communities often have a technology level less than that of more developed areas, so we used text messaging (SMS), a common and very accessible technology among almost all Atlanta residents, as the primary means of reporting. The user would text an address to a phone number and optionally follow up with a photo upload of the property, and then it would be recorded and mapped. This is VacantFinder, a civic media tool that will soon match submitted data with a database listing all Atlanta property owners. This will enable decision makers in communities, like my research contact Friends of English Avenue Organization, Inc (FEA), to decide if and how they can use the property to improve the surrounding area.

The overall goals of FEA are to convert unused spaces into assets that improve its intra-community identity inter-community clout. VacantFinder helps accomplish this goal by mapping this discrete data — a collection of addresses, photos of property, and owner information — to an information visualization of areas with many vacant properties.

This data mapping is also an interactive geographical map, allowing the user to better understand the geographic implications of vacancies. This allows FEA to quickly understand where each vacant lot exists in their neighborhood, as well as show their relation, particularly proximity, to each other. One of the primary concerns of areas with many vacancies is the absence of neighborhood protection, allowing crimes to be committed without the protective presence of a neighbor to deter it. A group of vacant houses is a more serious safety concern than a single vacant lot.

Therein also lies an abstraction of the data as a map not only of discrete reports of vacancies, but also of safety. Taken individually, as a map point or list element format, the data is representative of only itself, an identity, a single entry corresponding to nothing else. If a someone were to visualize that entry’s address as a physical space, it may be one they would not consider threatening, since it is only an empty house or unused lawn. Taken among others in the same format, a list of vacant houses on the same street, the same person may still not feel unsafe there if they do not know the physical proximity each street number represents, as they are often inconsistently numbered. However, when this data is plotted on a map, the person may understand that all these properties are right next to each other and occupy entire sections of a street or even the neighborhood. This is the case for the neighborhood currently visualized by VacantFinder, Grant Park: one of the most sparsely inhabited neighborhoods in Atlanta despite the number of owned properties.

Interaction with this service has two sides: SMS for reporting, and a web browser for browsing reports and other information. Whereas the City of Atlanta does not have the resources to constantly monitor the vacancy status of each property, and whereas this data is important to people in many roles (real estate, neighbors, land developers), reporting this data must be made accessible to as much of the public as possible. The most effective means of promoting accessibility is SMS, which is a common technology to nearly all mobile phones. Therefore, most people could text a vacant property’s address to VacantFinder’s phone number, and then if that person used a smartphone they could also take and submit a photo of the property. These levels of interaction take advantage individuals’ ability to contribute to this collaborative civic media tool, further improving the service.

OpenMaps provides the interaction methods for the browser, permitting the user to move around this digitally reconstructed space. Navigation provides the user a personal proximity to the vacant properties, using the computer as a means of transportation. A digital space is traversable with far fewer physical constraints than the real world, affording speed and safety. I will improve the browsing interface to include details on demand via the map markers for each property. These will map the addresses to owners to fully make use of this tool as a means of information retrieval for FEA organizers to decide if and how they can use the property to improve the surrounding area.

This style of mapping has a fairly historical context of paper maps and push pins. However, the key characteristic of computing and internet that hoists this visualization over the paper-and-pin method is the ability to condense information and automate its transfer from reporter to database to browser. This enables its maintainers to add more functionality that may benefit its users, and it allows users near-unlimited access to the information.

Users may access this data and use it in any way they see fit, however, users may also report the same information the same way. Automation often means less oversight to ensure the accuracy of its content, and to allow public write access to the database means the information may not always be true. The reported property may be incorrectly assumed to be vacant, or it may be reinhabited soon after its report and before it is culled from the database. This passive collection of data does not allow much room for curation in a timely manner, allowing misinformation to spread. However, vacant properties are fairly identifiable, and the bigger picture is perhaps more important than the individual reports. That is, aside from the ability for FEA organizers to make use of abandoned lots, users browsing the information can identify hotspots of vacancy, such as Grant Park in the visualization now. This could be usable by government officials who seek a community in need, or a real estate developer could seek a large uninhabited area for a large redevelopment.

VacantFinder is a visualization component of a greater civic media project is in its developing stages. It explores ways to help citizens engage with and to contribute to their rightful place in government and to allow the same citizens improved access to public information. Furthermore, government may also be better attuned to their constituents by having access to information reported directly from them.