About 6 a.m. one day this month, Kelly Laney's home security camera filmed three men lurking by her parked car at her home near West Lake Hills. When the camera turned on, they saw the men bolt, she said.
She immediately logged on to the social networking site Nextdoor and saw that six other neighbors had been targeted by thieves that morning.
The reach of Nextdoor -- which Laney and her Woodhaven neighborhood have used to report crime, set up block parties and share information about lost pets -- expanded Monday to the city of Austin and the Travis County sheriff's office. Officials announced they are partnering with Nextdoor to send alerts on crime, emergencies and traffic.
"We will be enhancing our outreach efforts into neighborhoods," Mayor Lee Leffingwell said during a news conference. "Public safety has always been a big priority of mine, and this tool helps those efforts by not only providing our residents with greater connectivity through our Police Department, but by also helping neighbors empower themselves to keep their communities safe."
Residents can join the Nextdoor website and download the mobile application for free by entering their home address, which the company then verifies by asking people to enter a land line, mobile phone or credit card number that is registered to the address.
Law enforcement and city officials can post general or neighborhood-specific information that appears like updates on the home feed or on a specific group page. The service is free to the city and county, which cannot see what individual neighbors are posting.
"Nextdoor will provide a communication tool to enable more residents to easily participate in the modern virtual ... neighborhood watch," Police Chief Art Acevedo said.
Acevedo said the social network will help mitigate the effects of what he considers a short-staffed police department.
Nextdoor will not replace the other platforms the city and county have used to distribute information, officials said.
Since the San Francisco-based company launched in Austin 2 1/2 years ago, 500 area neighborhoods have joined. Users create the boundaries of their neighborhoods and have posted information about items for sale and recommendations on landscapers or house repairers.
Laney, 35, who created the Woodhaven neighborhood on Nextdoor in September (it now has 80 members), compares it with Facebook and called it a better alternative to the neighborhood Yahoo group she was managing before.
"The technology is superior," she said.
(c) 2013 Austin American-Statesman, Texas