After the storm: helping communities rebuild

Post-Katrina New Orleans grappled with more than 35,000 derelict and abandoned properties, casting a shadow over many neighborhoods’ quality of life. Because the relevant data was in many different places and in many different formats, neither city staff nor the people of New Orleans could get the status of blighted properties anywhere except for monthly blight status meetings where all the data holders were present. Chief Information Officer Allen Square consulted his vendors, who told him that a solution would cost millions of dollars and take years to implement.

But New Orleans is home to neighborhood activists like Rita Legrand, who had attended 400 property code violation hearings hoping that administrative judges would force a cleanup in her community. When New Orleans city staff partnered with a team of Code for America fellows to address the problem, they worked with residents like Miss Rita (as Legrand is known to her neighbors) to understand the needs of the people, as well as the government. 

Together, they integrated the data and built a web application called BlightStatus. The app makes it easy for anyone to look up any address in New Orleans and see a simple, clear history of the property, including reports of blight, inspections, hearings, and scheduled demolitions. The partnership not only resulted in a solution that worked for multiple users, but did so at a fraction of the time and cost of a traditional government vendor.

Open data, help people work together

Blighted and abandoned properties are more than just eyesores — they attract crime, decrease property value, and cast a shadow over a neighborhood’s quality of life. Residents had limited access to information about blighted lots in their neighborhood, and didn’t know if a property was slated for restoration or demolition.

"We need to get this stuff torn down," Miss Rita said. "It's just terrible...At least if you tear it down, maybe a neighbor will mow the lawn.”

Residents who wanted information could either spend hours on the phone with city departments or wade through a series of confusing websites managed by multiple agencies. Without access to public blight data, residents couldn’t work together to make decisions and advocate for the future of their neighborhoods.

Unlocking logs of 35,000+ blighted properties

New Orleans had a powerful weapon to wield in the fight against blight: data. The city enlisted Code for America fellows to unlock their blight data and make the status of blighted properties easy to look up.

When fellows started the project, blighted property data was in different formats and owned by multiple local agencies. Just like Miss Rita, many residents spent hours each week keeping tabs on what was going on with blighted lots in their neighborhood. Staying up-to-date meant attending city meetings, conducting surveys of neighbors, and doing research on city and county websites. The information discovered in their search was organized using maps, Word documents, and spreadsheets.

This meant that people were constantly poking the city, using whatever channels of communication they had. It overwhelmed the city to the point where the city was paralyzed.

— Eddie Tejeda, 2012 Fellow at Code for America

Fellows spent months making sense of the data and testing different ways to provide accurate information through a tool that everyone could use.

The results: an easy-to-use search engine helped cut blight

The fellows helped the city build BlightStatus, a website that aggregates data about inspections, code compliance, hearings, judgments, and foreclosures. The app crunches data from multiple city departments, giving end users a simple search box that unlocked all the information available for any address in the city. Residents could add properties to their watchlist to keep tabs on updates and get alerts about hearings or other decisions.

“For the first time in the City of New Orleans’ history, residents will be able to review up-to-date property information directly from City records without stepping foot inside City Hall,” Mayor Landrieu said. “BlightStatus will greatly improve our work with neighborhood groups and individual residents in our fight on blight.”

By itself, BlightStatus couldn’t mow overgrown lawns, paint over graffiti, or renovate vacant buildings. But the app opened up a new, easy-to-use link between the city and community, keeping everyone on the same page and giving residents the chance to make their voice heard.

The tool also helped city employees keep up-to-date with changes to properties, and stay accountable for promised changes. City employees used BlightStatus to make data-driven decisions about what blight-solving tools they should wield at a given property: abatement, demolition, or real-estate use. 

The website made complex, inaccessible government data easy to find and easy to understand. 

BlightStatus was adopted by hundreds of residents, who are watching thousands of properties to this day. In 2014, New Orleans announced a milestone: the city cut blight by roughly 30 percent. 

For the first time, residents could track each step of the blight eradication process from inspections to resolutions. This data helped residents take ownership of their neighborhood and advocate for improvements. The city used open data to redefine the relationship between residents and government.

Use BlightStatus to engage residents

The code that powers the application is open source and available for anyone who wants to copy, alter, or adapt it. Take a look.

The 2012 fellows remain committed to the city, and continue to support BlightStatus. Like New Orleans, many of cities are also struggling with vacancy and blight issues. The fellows took BlightStatus to the next level and formed Civic Insight. If you are a government representative interested in putting Civic Insight to work for your community, visit civicinsight.com.