housing blight (ShutterStock image)

City enlists Instagram in blight cleanup

Mobile, Ala., turned to Instagram to address blight and put the city on track to restore at least $10 million in real estate equity by the end of this year.

Mobile’s Blight Index evolved in two main stages. The first came about 18 months ago, when city officials downloaded the popular photo-sharing app to their city-issued cell phones and began snapping pictures of rundown properties. Then, they needed a way to parse that data, so they created a complementary mobile app that enables the city to categorize and respond properly to each blighted property.

The impetus for this project was Mayor Sandy Stimpson, who asked the city’s Bloomberg Philanthropy-funded Innovation Team to find a way to reduce Mobile’s high blight rates. Blighted properties make up 2 percent of the city’s housing stock, and about 25 percent-- or more than 13,000 -- homes are within 150 feet of blight, the project found.

“Every home in that blight zone has a negative $6,300 impact to the value of their home, on average,” said Jeff Carter, executive director of the i-Team. Overall, blight created an $83 million negative impact on real estate values in the city.

A team member suggested using Instagram to document the properties, and Mobile’s code enforcement officers downloaded the app to their city-issued cell phones. Five teams of two people covered the entire 159.4-square-mile city in eight days, taking photos of neglected and unsafe properties and coloring in the completed areas on a map.

“Instagram really gave us three things,” Carter said. First, it offered employees  a sense of accomplishment, knowledge that they could make a difference in their city. It also provided a baseline number of blighted structures across the city, and it gave the city a way to map  general locations of blighted properties.

Armed with this basic data, the i-Team migrated to a more powerful platform, pulling the information out of Instagram and putting it into the city’s Esri ArcGIS database. The Collector for ArcGIS module lets users collect information in the field on a mobile device and writes the data directly to the database. Additionally, the code enforcement officers who handled the photo-taking swapped out their phones for Apple iPads.

“This is where we really feel pretty excited because what we’re able to do then is begin joining all the datasets that the city of Mobile had revolving around properties,” Carter said. The i-Team had property tax information, a history of code enforcement problems, historical registry listings and ownership details, such as whether properties are residential or commercial and owned by in- or out-of-state companies or people. They joined all those databases together and built a data profile for every blighted structure in the city, creating the Blight Index.

“The Blight Index is kind of a blight algorithm,” Carter said, likening it to the game Plinko. Officials enter a blighted property into the top of the index, and a resolution pathway emerges that lets the city respond to the properties with most appropriate action, such as ticketing or demolition.

The index’s potential was not lost on the Mobile City Council, which changed the Nuisance Abatement Ordinance so that the city can enforce tougher penalties on owners of blighted structures. As a result, officials expect to free 2,600 homes from blight and recover at least $10 million in real estate equity to homeowners.

Previously, the city’s response to blight was for code enforcers to wait for someone to call 311 and complain about a property, which left  the code enforcement team feeling merely reactive, Carter said. “Now code enforcement officers aren’t just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring to go check out a property. They now have a measured workload throughout the year,” he said. “They feel like their work is making a difference in these neighborhoods. It’s amazing what a difference that makes in morale.”

“The thing we’re most excited about exporting from this is this culture of innovation throughout our city,” he said, adding that through this project, Mobile demonstrated how cities don’t need more money, people or resources to solve problems.

Mobile is one of about 20 cities worldwide participating in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ i-Team program. The program aims to help cities design and implement new approaches that improve citizens’ lives. To that end, i-Teams function as in-house innovation consultants, moving from one mayoral priority to the next.

Next up for Mobile is the problem of illegally dumped tires. To combat that challenge, the city will install motion-activated cameras in spots where dumping is common to catch the litterers. Previously, Mobile would have had to send a police officer to monitor the area round-the-clock or organized a community cleanup, Carter said.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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