In Detroit, this winter was the worst ever. Not only was the weather brutal, with more than six feet of snow and the harshest conditions of any city in the country, but the city was also grappling with the psychological and economic toll of the massive municipal bankruptcy filed last June.
None of that stopped a crew of 225 people, including 150 citizen temporary employees, from participating in a remarkable feat that will help rebuild their hometown. In a mere 36 days in January and February, they mapped each and every instance of blight of an infamously blighted city, across every last property parcel, all 380,000 of them.
“The logistics of it were insane. I dare say no one’s done something like that at that scale before,” says Chris Uhl, social innovation director at The Skillman Foundation, which was one of several funders for the $1.5 million project. “At the peak, we were doing 16,000 parcels a day.”
The Motor City Mapping Project, overseen by Detroit’s White House-created Blight Task Force, is an ambitious first step towards revitalizing the urban landscape by building better uses on the foreclosed homes, vacant lots, and abandoned factories that have bloomed over many years. The survey work will be mashed up with more than a dozen other public and private datasets, and the partners involved plan to create an interactive map that will allow government planners and the community at large drill down into each property (it will also go in a report to the White House). “Each parcel, for lack of a better term, will have almost like a Facebook page for it,” says Uhl.
A new app called Blexting (“blight” + “texting”), developed by local company Loveland Technologies, made the quick work possible. Every day of the survey, teams of three people—two surveyors and one driver were assigned a small piece of the city’s grid within one of 600 “micro-neighborhoods.” Armed with an issued Android tablet, they snapped photos of each parcel and answered customized survey questions about its apparent condition (see video above). Through the blexting app, the data was immediately viewed at the command center where staffers on the project could see the map lighting up in real time and monitor progress. There were stop-off points around the city where they could warm-up and use facilities.
The results and final products from the survey are still being put together, and haven't been announced yet. For now, there is plenty of uncertainty about the numbers. Blight estimates range from 60,000 to as many as 100,000 properties; the last survey was in 2009 (before many of the foreclosures) and was done with pen and paper. But getting the best estimate possible and taking action is crucial to increasing the city’s future property tax base, as well as reducing crime and making communities livable again.
The work began last year, when a task force ran a pilot of the survey in the Brightmoor neighborhood. The biggest learning from that, says Uhl, was that they needed to issue everyone the same technology. The surveyors using their own smartphones led to too many hiccups and discrepancies, so they bought 150 Nexus tablets for the full survey work.
Loveland Technologies, one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies this year, has recently been on a tour of different cities around the country that are interested in using the blexting app and a similar protocol.
Already proven in a city like Detroit on this ambitious a scale, it’s bound to see successful use elsewhere. The act of bringing in the community to do the surveying work was also a model that had success. “It was this beautiful cross-section of Detroit, young and old, all races, all of that,” says Uhl.