Neighborhood analytics platform gives city insights into its own data
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
Officials in High Point, N.C., are combining datasets from across the city, using custom algorithms to analyze them and reviewing the resulting visualizations to identify and predict areas with properties that aren’t up to code.
After a 2016 study showed that 10 percent of the city's homes were vacant and 20 percent of the city’s properties consisted of empty lots, officials realized they had the basis for a strategy, but they needed more information before they could spend money and staff time on a solution. They found help in Tolemi’s cloud-based BuildingBlocks that analyzes a government’s own data and enables users to create reports that can help with decision making. Last month, the company won a Partners in Innovation award from Amazon Web Services’ City on a Cloud Innovation Challenge.
The subscription-based, hosted solution, whose price depends on population size, combines the city's data on taxes, crime, education, utilities and more, said Tolemi cofounder Andrew Kieve. The missing link is the layer of insight on top of it, he added.
First, the company consults with the city on what datasets would be most useful for its particular objective. The data integration phase follows, and the time it takes depends on the format and source of the available data – open data portals or spreadsheets, for instance, Kieve said. To make that easier, the company built out-of-the-box integration with government systems so they can hook into any database or system.
“We can just spin up a cloud-based file-sharing site or even an FTP portal and actually have them place that data there, and we can go get it on a regular basis,” he said.
The system puts the data into the company’s data store and maps it to Tolemi’s standards. “We basically write a script in our back-end application that pulls the data from that raw data store into our production database, and then we push it live,” he said. “What the city sees is the web-based application that allows them to query that data and run analytics on top of it.”
On average, it takes about two months to fully deploy and automate the application. As more cities sign on -- Tolemi has clients in more than 50 -- the company is standardizing parcel data, potentially expediting the setup process. But the mapping and city data will always be location-specific, Kieve said.
“We use this catchphrase around here now: Is the data actionable? Can we do anything with it?" said Michael McNair, director of High Point’s Community Development and Housing Department. "That’s what we’re trying to do -- generate actionable data that we can then make decisions off of.”
High Point has 54,000 parcels, but in terms of blight, the housing department might be interested in a small fraction of those. “We’ve got to find the right ones,” McNair said.
To do that, BuildingBlocks compares data on which properties have had their utilities off for six months, the number of calls from an area to the police department and tax delinquency records. “You find properties that have all those three in common, you probably have a substandard property,” he said. “Those become the ones that you can proactively go out and look at, rather than waiting for someone to call you.”
“What’s also nice is we receive phone calls from areas that might not pop up on the application. We can look at the data that’s behind that, and we can add that to the BuildingBlocks application and we can enhance it,” High Point GIS Manager Tom Tricot added. “We’re able to find patterns in the data that we weren’t able to before, when we were dealing with strictly a reactive environment. This has really enabled us to be proactive with the way that we approach where we put the resources.”
For example, the city’s Center for Community Progress helped the department see that collection of nuisance liens was becoming a problem; almost 900 had not been collected, and 600 of those property owners were up-to-date on taxes but not liens. The department used BuildingBlocks to identify those properties and their owners and sent the list to Guilford County, in which the city resides.
“We sent them a list totaling $966,000,” McNair said. “We asked the county to put that on the tax bill. (The county previously had agreed to do that.) When the tax bill goes out, the city’s lien will be on there. Hopefully we’ll get a higher collection rate.”
Another benefit of BuildingBlocks is greater interdepartmental interaction, he added. Since departments need to share their data to make the platform work, it’s knocking down stovepipes. “It’s actually changing our organizational culture,” McNair said. “These data strings are coming from individual departments, so now we know they understand this is the city’s data, this is not the department’s data, which makes us all work together in ways we had not in the past.”
The city plans to expand its use of BuildingBlocks, ultimately allowing all departments to use it for their own needs. “Any data you can get that has a spatial context to it, whether that be an address, whether that be a piece of property or a neighborhood, basically anything that could be in a GIS -- a geographic information system – can be made to apply to this application,” Tricot said.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.