How Regional Data Systems Are Helping Improve City Services

12.7.12 | It’s technology to the rescue in New Orleans, where city officials are relying on networked databases and new web applications to improve city services and help the city recover from hurricane Katrina.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the city’s progress in reducing the percentage of blighted properties, vacant or abandoned buildings, that often end up attracting crime and leading to further neighborhood disrepair. The Greater New Orleans Data Center released a report in August showing that the percentage of blighted properties in the city dropped from 34% in 2008 to 21% in March of this year and that Flint and Detroit have outpaced post-Katrina New Orleans as the most blighted cities in America.  But this was based on data from the U.S. Postal Service, which was not comprehensive and the GNOCDC at the time called for the city to develop a more complete property tracking system.

Blogging at The Wall Street Journal this week, Joel Schectman reports that the city has made significant progress on this front with new tools to help city agencies better coordinate recovery efforts and share information. Schectman reports that this fall the city began using land asset management software that helps track information on permits, work orders and enforcement actions, as well as to centralize information on blighted properties. He writes:

Prior to this summer, information on blighted properties was stored separately by various individual agencies — like code enforcement offices, redevelopment offices, and legal departments – often using paper records. That lack of central information made forcing owners to fix their properties–or to demolish them–far harder. This lack of centralization also led to a lack of coordination between departments for other services, such as street repairs, or any ability to manage such projects.

“If someone asked us how long it would take on average to fill a pothole — we’d just randomly throw out 365 days — just a random number with a lot of cushioning,” Allen Square, New Orleans’ CIO told Schectman. “We had no visibility to know how long it actually took.”

Using the new database the city can now centralize all of the data gathered from resident 311 calls, code enforcement bureaus, tax enforcement departments and public hearings and give more realistic estimates of where they are and where they need to be. City inspections and hearings are able to happen much more quickly. Inspections of blighted properties are up significantly in the city and last month the city scheduled almost three times the number of hearings on blighted property than took place in September.

The city is also developing a new online platform called BlightStatus that allows citizens to see data about dilapidated properties overlaid on a city map. That tool, built with the help of the non-profit Code For America, uses the land asset management database to see whether blighted properties have yet been inspected by the city, already seized, or scheduled for demolition. (For more on work Code for America is doing in other cities see What We Do Together: Technology for Better Cities).

According to Schectman, the software can also help planers spot trends and development patterns in the city by helping them analyze permit data.

BRR’s own Todd Swanstrom has written about the importance of this kind of cross-government and cross-sector collaboration in responding to bureaucratic slowdowns in the foreclosure crisis.

Swanstrom and fellow network member James Brooks from the National Leagues of Cities outline lessons from local and regional practice in “Resilience in the Face of Foreclosure,” (pdf). Their recommendations include the development of a regional data system.  Swanstrom and Brooks say that foreclosures, like blighted properties, are a moving target and metros need up-to-date data systems to track the problem in real time. New Orleans is well on its way. Read more about Swanstrom’s research here.

Photo/ JustUptown

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