“UnBlight,” A community unconference on housing data

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Most of us have seen them. Abandoned houses that once had a promise of life but have now been left unattended, weeds growing out of windows or worse, become havens for street crimes in neighborhoods that once thrived.

Now take a minute and imagine what could be possible, if there was information about these buildings including locations on where they can be found. This is where open data comes in. Government data — in this case — open housing data can empower the public by providing them with the information they need to combat blighted communities.

As long-term advocates for open government, we believe that it is critical for government data (including housing data) to be made open and available for use to the community, technologists and activists alike because it helps promote government transparency. This way, when the public has the information in their hands on say how many abandoned lots, foreclosures or vacant properties there are in their neighborhoods, they can then be able to mobilize and create initiatives such as public gardens which make their communities better places to live.

This is why we are partnering with the Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University to organize the UnBlight unconference in Macon, Georgia. The unconference will bring together community advocates, technologists, journalists, policy makers and students interested in exchanging ideas and sharing lessons about combating blight and repurposing abandoned parts of our cities. We are still in the very early stages of the planning process and your insight will help us organize a better unconference to suit your needs. But we need your help in order to make this unconference successful.

Tell us about your availability and area of interest by filling out this short survey (it takes just a few minutes). Your feedback will help us determine scheduling for the unconference.

A study by the Brookings Institution found that from 2000 to 2010, the number of vacant housing units nationally had increased by 4.5 million or 44 percent. Because of this (and other reasons), several cities have succumbed to housing-related issues including blight and Macon, GA is one of those cities. You can learn more about the UnBlight unconference, here.

An image of participants at the vacant properties session at TCamp
Participants during the vacant properties session at TransparencyCamp. Image credit: Spike

Also, as a precursor to the conference, we proposed a session at TransparencyCamp, titled “tackling vacant and abandoned properties with good data”. If you were not able to attend it, you can check out some of the notes here. Some of the opendata projects highlighted in the discussion were:

  • Motor City Mapping, a Detroit project that involved 150 detroit residents who surveyed 377,602 parcels of land in Detroit, in an effort to establish an accurate count of the level of blight and vacancy in the city.

  • We also learned about 596 Acres (who are also a Sunlight Foundation OpenGov grantee) and how they built a tool that reports empty lots, and enables the public to connect via social networks and come up with ways to repurpose these empty lots, particularly for urban farming.

Additionally, in his Thinking Differently about Vacant Properties, Abhi Nemani, a participant in the session also offers a resourceful roundup of different approaches to addressing blight and mentions freespace — as a good example of an initiative born of creativity, community and civic innovation. We hope to generate similar discussions at the UnBlight unconference.

Some of the key areas that the unconference will discuss will include:

  • Preventing foreclosure
  • Identifying vacant homes
  • Abandoned lots
  • Visualizing and mapping

Participants in the housing data arena will unpack the housing data collection tools they have used or developed while other attendees who have familiarity with fair housing guidelines will talk about policies and rights governing equal rights to housing. Journalism professionals will also be on hand to share their experiences on how they are telling housing-related stories using technology tools.

Help us spread the word about UnBlight unconference with your networks on Twitter using #UnBlightUnconf and don’t forget to share your thoughts about the unconference in this short survey!