Growing Neighborhoods LLC
Innovation: Vacant Voices mobile application
As the foreclosure crisis has continued to ravage neighborhoods in cities across the country, leaving scores of abandoned and vacant properties in its wake, one Milwaukee entrepreneur has created a tool to better track those properties and identify patterns and correlations among them.
Nearly a year ago, Shantanu Singh, founder of Growing Neighborhoods LLC, launched Vacant Voices, a mobile application that allows residents and associations to crowdsource the location and condition of vacant and abandoned properties within their blighted vicinities.
The native mobile app, which operates on an open source platform and is available to Android users, contains a checklist that displays characteristics commonly associated with vacant or abandoned properties. After completing the checklist for a property or area being surveyed, end users can snap a photo of the specific property characteristic they are analyzing in order to eliminate the subjectivity of their assessment.
“The photo stabilizes the criteria, and we try to look for uniformity (and) quality control of what people consider to be an issue of the house,” Singh said.
Once a user completes her checklist for a particular property, she can save that list onto her smartphone. As soon as she is able to connect to a Wi-Fi signal, she can send her stored information to a backend database, which is housed in the cloud and holds both collective data and digital media. The information is aggregated and published in near real time with Google Fusion Tables and Google Maps, allowing for better visualization and analytic reporting on neighborhood properties.
“And that allows decision makers to prioritize segments of the neighborhood that may have a common problem and get more impact out of the resources available to conduct home repair maintenance or whatever the revitalization strategy is for that neighborhood,” Singh said, citing peeling paint as an example of the kinds of eyesore housing issues that Vacant Voices can track.
To help neighborhoods get a better pulse on their vacant and abandoned inventories, Vacant Voices sets up databases for each neighborhood it serves. While Singh retains administrative access to the databases, the neighborhoods own and manage their own data and control who can access information and how that information is reported and visualized. Apart from a database startup fee and development costs for organizations that want to feature a unique checklist, the tool is free for community organizations.
Neighborhoods typically can get up and running with the app in less than 72 hours, according to Singh, who said the speed differentiates Vacant Voices from marketplace competitors.
The Vacant Voices app’s user base primarily consists of community development organizations and neighborhood associations that are in tune with community needs, that interact with the community on a daily basis and “are in a position to observe problems before they manifest as systemic issues” for a neighborhood, Singh said.
In Milwaukee, the app has served neighborhoods such as Harambee, Riverwest, Sherman Park, and Layton Boulevard West, according to Singh.
The tool, which Singh brought to life with a group of Seattle-based developers, has also been tested in St. Louis neighborhoods and is set to assess at least 100 homes in Georgia. To date, Vacant Voiceshas completed at least 600 property surveys across the country.
One of the major selling points of Vacant Voices, Singh said, is its ability to cater to the specific needs of individual neighborhoods, which often have very distinct turnaround strategies.
“The flexibility of the tool is the value of the tool,” Singh said. “The tool can align with the stabilization and revitalization strategy of a neighborhood.”
However, while appealing to neighborhood-specific needs, Vacant Voices uses consistent definitions for what constitute abandoned homes or vacant properties.
“That’s important because the definition of vacant and abandoned homes is a municipal-based definition, and therefore there is no consistent criteria,” Singh said, adding that Growing Neighborhoods LLC is working to standardize a definition, in part with Singh’s own insight from his legal experience as a former Chicago prosecutor focused on credit crisis litigation.
Looking forward to a second version of Vacant Voices, Singh hopes to make urban planning data available through public portals more accessible and user-friendly for neighborhoods, integrating it with the information that app users collect themselves.
The app’s original version has already made a difference in Milwaukee, Singh said, since it allows neighborhood organizations to gather, aggregate and leverage their own data in order to make more informed decisions.
“Everyone is stretched thin, and so with data you can hopefully get more insight into where the greatest needs are,” he said, so that neighborhood organizations can inspire the greatest impact with the limited resources at their disposal.