Homewood Community Uses LocalData to Map Vacancy

By: Sara Innamorato

Operation Better Block, Inc. (OBB) has been a Pittsburgh LocalData Collaborative member since May 2014. Demi Kolke, the Community Development Coordinator at OBB, tells the story of how her organization used LocalData to help with their community planning efforts.


Operation Better Block, Inc.’s resident-driven vacant property remediation has at its core the following goals: gather accurate and current parcel information, build relationships with residents by linking them to services, and address neighborhood-wide issues. Through this, we were able to advance the data-driven organizing framework and develop a replicable “cluster planning” process to stabilize the neighborhood– block by block.

Volunteers surveyed 5,160 land parcels (like the one pictured above) throughout Homewood.

After we completed these steps in a pilot area, limited resources drove us to look at partnered approaches that could increase our effectiveness and bring the project to scale. In early 2014, we embarked on a collaborative effort with local community development corporations, universities, and GTECH Strategies to streamline data collection and promote cross-neighborhood collaboration. We eliminated the need for paper and pencil surveys by jointly contracting with LocalData. LocalData made our data more accurate because it allowed users to immediately geolocate each parcel, minimizing user error (e.g., duplicating parcels, incorrect addresses) and letting us visualize geospatial data without hiring GIS experts.

Using LocalData enabled tablets, OBB surveyed all 5,160 land parcels in Homewood in five months. The property and resident survey processes involved community practitioners, researchers and organizers to connect data to action. We trained 35 volunteers including Google Pittsburgh staff and university students. Many residents became curious and asked questions when they saw surveyors on the street. These interactions, along with a simultaneous door-to-door resident survey, led to dozens of referrals for services like home repairs, utility assistance and calls to the city regarding code enforcement issues. Maps created from the real-time data were useful tools in cluster planning meetings. Residents appreciated the birds-eye view of current conditions and worked to create a vision and generate energy to implement that vision. Further, our cluster planning meetings were better attended than previous community meetings– more than 600 residents participated and many reported that they felt more deeply involved because of the hyper-local approach. They felt that a vision for their own block could be more realistically implemented than larger, neighborhood-wide efforts.

Overall, the resident-driven vacant property remediation process became a way to connect residents to resources and to each other, creating relationships, a sense of shared goals and a vision for reclaiming vacant property in Homewood.

The planning process was also improved through the more direct connection to action items. The LocalData application allows users to flag code violations and problem properties, which encourages immediate follow up from community organizers. Our partners at GTECH use our data to identify vacant lots and prioritize and implement green strategies that match local needs. Because LocalData allows us to connect our data to the county parcel identification code, we can use GIS software to spatially join our data to other city-level administrative data including ownership and tax delinquency to further streamline the process of acquiring vacant properties and working with existing owners to rehabilitate properties.

Overall, the resident-driven vacant property remediation process became a way to connect residents to resources and to

Data on vacancy was collected using the LocalData platform.

each other, creating relationships, a sense of shared goals and a vision for reclaiming vacant property in Homewood. We used LocalData, a novel technology, to simplify the process of data collection and enhance data quality, which had the added benefit of being more participatory and engaging than our previous pencil and paper methods. Our experience demonstrates that by using technology to streamline the data collection process, organizations can free up valuable staff time to focus on the issues most pertinent to residents and as a result, promote healthy and vibrant communities.

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1 Comment

  1. sean nolan

    i just read about this work after talking to someone at steel valley council of governments in homestead. i was thinking to write an article for New People newspaper on SVCOG’s work. Local data enables them to map neighborhoods and see what buildings need attention first – is that right?

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