A new Web-based mapping system can help pinpoint the spread of blight on a block-by-block basis ... for those who have permission to use it.
Three years in the making, the Pittsburgh Community Information System enables users to map conditions in their neighborhoods. Community groups could, for instance, pinpoint areas with the most building-code violations, condemned properties and other symptoms of an ailing community.
"The clearer the picture [we have], the better we're able to identify different trends and different needs," says Grant Ervin, policy director for 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, a smart-growth group that has overseen the system's development. But while the system could be used across the city, for now access is being limited to about 20 neighborhood organizations ... chosen for their ability to handle, and their need to use, such data most immediately.
The data inside the system is provided by government agencies, whose information is usually a matter of public record. But to process and update the data, 10,000 Friends teamed up with the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development as well as Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. Underwritten by roughly $100,000 in donations, mostly from local foundations, the system debuted in late August.
Ervin says such private handling of public data allows the consortium to control access to its system, making the information "proprietary."
"This begs the question whether or not it's a community system at all," counters Arnold Chandler. He is a program associate with PolicyLink, a national research and advocacy organization that promotes equitable regional development. PolicyLink has surveyed community mapping systems maintained by the largest 100 cities, including Pittsburgh. Such limited access, Chandler says, is the exception nationally.
For Chandler, now ... rather than later ... is the time to build "a broad cross-section of communities and audiences" using the system. "[Having an] audience from the beginning matters because [the] audience is going to shape how you design the system and what types of questions the system can help you answer."
Ervin, of 10,000 Friends, promises that "democratic access" to the system is in the cards. But right now, he says, "we're trying to learn how to operate the system. It is an experiment.