The city of South Bend, Ind., tackled urban blight in short order, rehabilitating or demolishing 1,000 abandoned properties two months ahead of the 1,000-day goal set by Mayor Pete Buttigieg. However, resolving the blight issue created a new problem: What to do with hundreds of now-vacant lots scattered throughout the city? To answer this question, South Bend paired the power of public outreach with innovative technology.
The city sent municipal employees and University of Notre Dame students into the field to understand what features community members wanted to see in their neighborhoods. “We had people working with neighborhood groups, creating makeshift policy labs through which we could understand issues from residents’ perspectives,” explained Santiago Garces, South Bend’s chief innovation officer. To ensure the process would garner effective and representative public input, the city relied on its relationship with the university to construct methodologies and survey instruments.
To make sense of the data gathered, South Bend then paired this tried-and-true method of public outreach with cutting-edge mapping technology. The city used ArcGIS Hub, an Esri platform that clusters data sets and tools around specific citywide initiatives, in order to improve public input. Anthony Puzzo of Esri described the hub as “a two-way engagement platform to help connect the government to its citizens and create a digital conversation about the initiative at hand.”
The first element of this platform is a visualization of resident input that takes information gathered on the ground and maps it lot by lot across the city. For example, the map might show that residents see one lot as an ideal place for affordable housing and another as a good spot for green infrastructure. The other element is a channel of communication that allows residents to comment on the information displayed in the map. “We are using the hub to create a modern way of organizing open data, presenting the information in a consumable fashion, and creating a digital conversation to listen to those interested,” explained Puzzo. With respect to blight, the hub provides “a way of understanding which lots are right for which uses,” said Garces. And opening the platform to the public has allowed the city to publicize its successes and gain buy-in for construction and renovation projects.
For Garces, however, it was important that the technology came after the city put in the work to engage with residents in their neighborhoods. The relationships the city developed with community members were invaluable in gaining support for projects. “With this on-the-ground engagement, we were able to develop the trust to experiment with new things — for example, a tree nursery that we’re thinking about filling with edible fruit that could serve food deserts,” Garces explained.
Moreover, engaging with residents on the ground increased community interest in city projects. “With technology only, you may get participation, but you don’t necessarily get buy-in because people feel like they have a marginal influence,” Garces said. “It feels to residents more like rooting for their favorite American Idol contestant than participating in a conversation.” On the other hand, talking to residents face-to-face assures them that their voices will be heard, and then technology can be a useful tool for organizing and delivering upon this public input.
And the combination of personal outreach and technology ensured that the city’s efforts engaged a representative group of voices. “Especially in South Bend, neighborhoods that don’t have a ton of money don’t have access to tech platforms,” said Garces. And yet, following on-the-ground engagement with technology also aided efforts toward inclusivity. According to Garces, during the outreach process, students and employees analyzed the distribution of participation across the city and, seeing that the channels of communication were underused in low-income areas, adjusted their methods in order to broaden the reach. Puzzo described the hub platform as “a way of capturing who from the public is providing information. You know who you’re engaging with and can manage your community accordingly.”
South Bend’s approach to its blight outreach efforts — fusing the personal with the technical — is exactly how cities should approach tech-driven initiatives. Technology is no replacement for human-centered policy. Rather, “technology validates a process that’s a lot more democratic and meaningful,” Garces said.
Chris Bousquet, a research assistant/writer at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School, co-authored this column.