Bit by bit, trio of techies craft code to deliver survey data to Detroit
A national technology-rooted nonprofit sends three young coders to Detroit to see what they can bring to the table. A year later, they're headed to New York City, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston to bring the fruits of that effort to those cities.
That's what's happening with Amplify Labs, an offshoot that has sprung from Code for America's fellowship program, which sent the three coders here this year.
Code for America sends young technologists to cities to see what ideas they might come up with that use new technology to solve problems in those areas. Three fellows — Matt Hampel, 24; Alicia Rouault, 26; and Prashant Singh, 31 — came to Detroit in January.
Their task was pretty wide open: Look around and come up with some ideas at the intersection of tech and local government.
It so happened that Wayne State University's department of urban studies and planning was working on a large project, at the city's request, to survey Detroit's commercial corridors to take stock of properties and their conditions. The Detroit Planning & Development Department helped the WSU department get a $4,500 grant from the city's Detroit Works project to cover costs.
Seventeen students in the master's program in urban planning were working on the survey. These land surveys require driving around and writing about the condition of each parcel of property in the chosen area of study.
The Code for America team offered their help and came up with the idea to use the Web and smartphone technology to expedite the process.
They named the set of tools they developed LocalData. The product allows surveyors to enter property data into a smartphone instead of writing information on a piece of paper on a clipboard. This eliminates the step of entering all the written information into a computer program such as Excel.
LocalData uses city-provided data and a GPS system to allow surveyors to enter survey answers about a given parcel directly into a Web-based smartphone application that shows a map of the parcel area.
The students surveyed 9,536 parcels along the corridors of Michigan, Gratiot, Grand River, Jefferson and Woodward avenues, listing the condition and apparent uses of the properties.
Robin Boyle, chair of the department of urban studies and planning, said the LocalData tools had some glitches, but he was impressed with how quickly the Code for America team fixed them.
"We would make a comment, and they would turn that around in three or four hours," he said.
To see the reports and data from the WSU urban studies project, click here.
LocalData has use beyond this one project, Hampel said. Nonprofits, community organizations and the city are among the entities that conduct such surveys, he said.
The team plans to continue developing LocalData and begin reaching out to community groups in San Francisco, Boston, New York and Chicago to get more use out of the software.
Last month, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation gave the team $300,000 to support these efforts. The team plans to form Amplify Labs once the fellowship wraps up in November.
Amplify Labs would be a business, but the team has not decided where to base it yet, Hampel said. He is originally from Ann Arbor, lives in San Francisco and plans to move to Detroit. Singh lives in San Francisco and Rouault in Cambridge, Mass., where she attends the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Amplify would continue to provide LocalData freely to community groups, Hempel said, while revenue would be drawn from selling access to the tools to municipalities on a subscription basis. Municipalities usually have to build these kinds of tools in-house — that is, pay an information technology firm to build them. Amplify subscriptions would allow them to avoid the heavy investment in a system and also opt out once the tools no longer are needed.
"If they decide they don't want to use it anymore, they won't have to spend $5 million to use a system they are unhappy with," Hampel said.
Vanguard Community Development Corp., a CDC that looks after the Central Woodward North End Community — the area that lies roughly between Woodward Avenue and I-75 north of I-94 — just wrapped up a survey of 1,600 parcels using the tools from the Code for America team. Matteo Passalacqua, real estate manager at Vanguard, said the tools cut the time to do the survey by as much as 75 percent.
Vanguard's team consisted of 14 local volunteers and six Americorps volunteers who did the surveys in about six days over five weeks.
Passalacqua said LocalData is especially useful for Detroit surveying groups because their data sets quickly grow old in a city with so many fires, auction sales and delinquent property owners.
"After a year, those studies become completely obsolete," he said.
Having a fast way to update the parcel information means they can stay on top of the changes, Passalacqua said.
It was Karla Henderson's office that first asked Code for America to come in. Henderson, group executive for planning and facilities for the city of Detroit, said Slows Bar BQ owner Phil Cooley had coaxed her into doing it, but she balked at first.
"I was not a believer," Henderson said.
She said the mayor's office receives hundreds of letters from people around the world who want to help Detroit. But that often means having to do the work of getting people acquainted with the city and its people.
"I didn't want another project," Henderson said. "I thought I was going to take them around and introduce them" to everyone they would need to know.
The Code for America fellows, however, already had made those contacts and were able to hit the ground running. The team spent the first several weeks meeting people and groups, and Hampel worked the connections he had made earlier as an intern at Data Driven Detroit.
"I was impressed that they already had reached out to a number of developers and people in the technology world I did not know existed, really independently working with community groups and nonprofits," Henderson said.
She also was given a push by Rishi Jaitly, program director for the Knight Foundation in Detroit, who came up with a $150,000 grant from Knight and the Battle Creek-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation to pay the fee that Code for America charges cities to cover the living expenses and other costs for fellows during their fellowship period.
Besides LocalData, the team also developed the Detroit Department of Transportation's new text messaging system that allows riders to text a number to find out when a particular bus is expected to arrive. The team proposed the idea in February, and it officially launched in September.
Henderson said that alone was worth bringing in the team.
"I said, 'If you do this and nothing else, this will be a successful project,' " Henderson said.
The city plans to continue to use LocalData to get a handle on all the property information that residents and groups send to the city, information that is useful if only it can be better organized and processed, Henderson said.
"We would go to community meetings and people would come up to us with lists of addresses. And every community is doing this," she said.
The city will let the public know that people can use smartphones and the city's website to enter information.
The Code for America experience changed Henderson's mind about opening up city data and letting young, independent techie groups work with it. The city needs to get over its hang-ups about letting others use its data, she said, referring to fears that the data won't be good enough or that it will be used against the city.
"Why is that so hard for us?" Henderson said. "We have to take a risk and a leap of faith that this will help benefit our citizens."
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Matt Hampel's name was misspelled.