New Orleans is taking the fight against blight to the Web.
In partnership with Code for America (CfA), the city will develop an interactive website that makes it easier for citizens to report and track complaints about rundown and vacant properties. Once online, the site should improve communication with New Orleans officials and assist in identifying areas in the Crescent City that need serious cleanup.
A team of four CfA fellows and various members of the city’s IT staff will work on the project, which should be online by November. Serena Wales, one of the CfA fellows involved, said she and her colleagues are in the initial planning stages of the endeavor, working to figure out what’s needed to make the site successful.
“Right now we’re trying to get a sense of what systems the city has in place for tracking blight and for tracking the different processes,” Wales said. “[We’re] also meeting with neighborhood groups on how they interact and get information out of the city. That’s been our main focus.”
Wales and the CfA team will also be working hand in hand with New Orleans’ code enforcement personnel and staff who work on blight policy. At first blush, she explained, one of the biggest priorities is combining all the different systems people use in order to understand what’s happening to their neighborhood’s properties.
In addition, the team needs to evaluate what type of display would be the most user-friendly. Right now, Wales said residents need a case number, street address or other information to find data on blighted properties. The goal is to come up with a system that’s not dependent on specific data. The plan is to build some prototypes, test them out with selected users and then refine further and add features as needed.
For those who walk around their neighborhoods, a mobile app could be an ideal solution for reporting blight — Wales said that’s something New Orleans will be looking at. A nonprofit called Beacon of Hope recently released an iPhone app that various groups are using to track properties. This app will be evaluated before making any decisions.
“One thing we’re doing now is research into what devices people have and how they use technology,” Wales said. “We don’t want to make assumptions and build an iPhone app that isn’t actually useful to anyone because no one has an iPhone.”
Wales was frank, however, that no matter what the CfA-New Orleans team does, it won’t end the problem of blight in the city. But she was hopeful the project would be the first step toward a solution.
“We know we’re not going to solve it, but I think it’s something where having more openness and the ability to communicate what’s happening better will really help that process along,” Wales said.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.