Mapping blight in Detroit

Motor City Mapping

Using organized teams of locals, Motor City Mapping has created an amazing map of blight in Detroit — letting neighbors and city officials see the precise condition of 400,000 houses.

It's a project by Loveland Technologies, a consultancy devoted to helping map land data so people can make informed decisions about their communities. Back in 2010, Loveland's Jerry Paffendorf started an art project where they bought distressed properties in Detroit for $500 a pop, then set up a Kickstarter project to let people buy an inch of Detroit. Witty, yes, but it also had the serious goal of getting people to think concretely about the city's blight. (Rita J. King wrote about it back in 2010 for Boing Boing.) Loveland made a big map of Detroit so people could see the microchunk they'd bought.

But then — as Ethan Zuckerman writes in a terrific blog post — the Loveland map took on a new dimension. Loveland's Mike Evans took Detroit's foreclosure data, overlaid it on the map, and suddenly it turned into a "holy shit visualization".


It was the first time anyone really grasped the scale of the real estate collapse, including even the country treasurer. As Zuckerman quotes Evans:

"It's a powerful experience," he explains. "You look up your childhood home and you either breathe a sigh of relief or you call your mom. You click on your neighbors and your friends, and when you get bad news, you start thinking about how you might help them." The tool quickly became popular with churches, who would look up houses of congregants, and then raise money to rescue members who were in distress. Often churches and friends wouldn't raise enough money to pay off people's debt, but payments as small as $300 could often forestall foreclosure for as much as three years.

One of the problems of blight is informational: Nobody knows the state of a neighborhood, a block, an individual house. So Loveland launched Motor City Mapping to be an even more ambitious data-collection project. Scores of Detroit citizens fanned out across the city, equipped with tablets and customized software so they could take pictures of each house and record its condition.

This info is powerful, as Zuckerman notes:

Having real-time data matters when you're trying to transform a city. In particular, it's critically important to have data about whether properties are occupied or abandoned. Detroit's police force is so stressed that they generally don't evict homeowners when their properties have been foreclosed on. As a result, buying a foreclosed property at auction in Detroit is a deeply uncomfortable gamble. The property you bought for $500 might be abandoned and ready for you to fix it up… or it may be occupied by a family unhappy about you showing up on their doorstop. Most investors don't want to purchase the occupied buildings, which is why having Motor City Mapping's data on occupied properties is so crucial. As the project has continued from its startup phase, the team prioritizes re-surveying tax distressed properties they believe are occupied, trying to minimize situations where people are purchasing occupied buildings.

Realtime, or near realtime, mapping of a city has other positive implications. When the city wants to provide services like cutting grass, they can use the maps to scout areas ahead of time, and can mark maps once they've provided services.

Here's a video talking about the usefulness of Motor City Mapping: