VacantFinder is a result of my continuing work with the Friends of English Avenue organization. The City of Atlanta has allowed me to further investigate public data, specifically to solving issues of property abandonment. My previous project included a static map of properties reported in the Grove Park neighborhood and a public SMS service for reporting more properties. This was geared more towards data gathering and speculation on its representation. Now, I’ve added functionality to make this tool more useful for both government and citizens. This includes interaction capabilities to provide per-property data, such as address and date of its report as vacant, as well as who or what organization owns the property, as reported by the government in a public database. Further work is needed on the interface; however, the functional backend is a significant advancement and allows for quick and easy import of more data given the necessary affordances on a future front-end interface.
Anyone can report any property to VacantFinder via SMS and then automatically inserted into a database. This database is then downloaded and cached on the client’s machine and displayed via its Google map interface. The current points listed on the map are simply for this presentation and are all together representative only of the Grant Park neighborhood, one of the areas in Atlanta with the highest density of abandoned properties. Once each point is downloaded and mapped, the user may click one to view its address and date reported as vacant or hover over one to quickly preview its address. Next, the service automatically downloads another database of properties registered with the city government. Once it downloads (this may take a few seconds), clicking a property will also compare that address to all addresses in the city’s database for matches and display its owner on success. One future improvement to VacantFinder is to provide better feedback for the user as the large databases download. VacantFinder is now an extensible platform on which developers may build civic media tools related to properties in Atlanta. The data can also be exposed like an API via developer toolkits such as Chrome’s Web Inspector and Firefox’s Firebug console, as well as the PHP script that accepts URL queries as database commands.
The Economist recently profiled how other major cities open their data to the Internet via APIs and public databases. Chicago, for example, provides its data in raw format, assuming developers will know what to do with it, rather than a pre-formatted presentation like an annotated map. Instead, by allowing citizen developers to access the data in its raw form, the responsibility of government lies in its transparency rather than delivery of some prepared artifact. Whereas this data has been available by demand, it only existed as poorly formatted print-outs from my personal experience. By formatting city data in a machine-readable way, this data can be manipulated by those of us who can open that data further to show it as information. For example, Atlanta is initializing its own city data portal (“Open Data”) and piloted it for use by the Govathon competition series, attracting developers and designers to build civic media tools.
Raw, loosely organized data is like scattered leaves, all important individually but not readily usable by the public. By raking these leaves together into a form such as a map, the data becomes information or fact as a message is made in its formation. Interaction with the data can also allow this data to be refactored within boundaries to change the data’s perspective to truth. By allowing the public to enter their own data alongside this other information, it becomes truth. If the public is allowed to modify and add their own information, which they would trust by default, to shared public resources such as cities’ open data projects, then perhaps people will better identify with and trust the city around them.
The government as well as citizen-level organizations like Neighborhood Planning Units (NPUs) could find the data useful when presented this way. For example, if neighborhoods were outlined on the map and a large number of vacancies fell into a particular neighborhood, then that neighborhood’s NPU would be more likely to communicate this issue to its constituents. Providing history with the data could even allow a sort of storytelling application to be built atop VacantFinder. Perhaps a time-lapse animation of properties being reported as vacant and then removed when re-occupied would show vacancy shifting across the city or changing frequency over time. This could be overlaid with other time-lapsed presentations of information civic media tools may provide, allowing a simple way to identify correlations in city-wide issues.
VacantFinder is a visualization framework that other civic media tools may be built upon. 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, decreasing the distance between capitol hill and main street.
“By the Numbers.” The Economist 7 Apr. 2013. Web.
Open Data. City of Atlanta. Web. <https://atlanta.demo.socrata.com/>.