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Upstate New York Cities Collaborate with Tech to Combat Blight

Four local governments have partnered with the Center for Technology in Government to develop a platform that will share data and stem the rising tide of blighted buildings.

Schenectady, N.Y., like many cities across the country, has struggled with blighted buildings. There are between 900 and 1,000 of them in the city of roughly 66,000 residents, and such a high number will have a troubling impact on economic development and property values, while also presenting a safety hazard for other properties nearby, said John Coluccio, Schenectady’s signal superintendent.

Squatters in these abandoned houses often start fires that can spread. Demolishing the structures, however, is also a costly prospect. Basically, for local government the best course of action is to reduce the number of buildings that become blighted at all.

To do this, Schenectady has joined with a number of other cities in upstate New York, as well as with a key academic partner, on a collaborative project, the roots of which date back to 2015. The other cities are Amsterdam, Gloversville and Troy, and the partner is the University of Albany’s Center for Technology in Government. This cooperative work is part of a pilot program that aims to share critical code-enforcement data that the participating governments are hopeful will enable them to take a more proactive approach to the problem.

All of these cities collect code enforcement data — such as names, contact information and addresses for building owners — that can be useful, if shared and deployed correctly.

“Data is really important,” Coluccio said, “but we don’t want to be able to just collect it. We want to be able to collect it and use it, and to use it properly.”

This means setting up a system to share data about blighted buildings between jurisdictions. That way, when a property management company begins to let buildings become unusable, the different cities can compare information and do a better job holding the company accountable. Coluccio said it may seem simple, but currently, neighboring cities throughout the region don’t have any formal way to share vital information.

The participating cities are working with vendors to build software, and hope to have most of the local governments online together by the end of the summer. What this will likely be is a dashboard for code enforcement issues. Another priority is finding set terms for what constitutes blighted buildings and making sure that all the cities share them.

A large portion of the work is being funded by a grant from the New York State Department of State’s Local Government Efficiency Program, which recognized the need for it as well as its innovative nature, said Meghan Cook, program director with the Center for Technology in Government. The center largely played an advisory role in this project, helping to launch the collaborative, and Cook said the cities may be working on their own by 2019.

Derek Werthmuller, director of innovation with CTG, said the goal is “to use this sharing resource as a way to learn best practices and not reinvent the wheel.”

The hope among all those involved is that the work being done in upstate New York can eventually be replicated throughout the country.

“We believe that what we’re doing with code enforcement could be expanded to other areas,” Coluccio said. “We could add police and fire information, or other different issues so we could look from community to community and compare.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.