Monday, November 23, 2015

A City Jump Starts Data Collection Using Instagram

In Mobile, Alabama, a new mayor entered office wanting to improve the city.  Like Paul O’Neill focusing on worker safety at Alcoa, Mayor Sandy Stimpson identified blight as an underlying cause of other issues affecting residents, namely property values, economic development, and crime rates.  Stimpson believed that reducing blight would lead to improvements in these other areas.  To achieve this goal, he marshaled financial resources to create an innovation team to develop new approaches to solving Mobile’s issues.

Joan Dunlap, the head of the innovation team, quickly identified that the city had no accurate record of blighted properties, making it difficult to measure the effects of any blight reduction programs.  Previously, the city logged complaints submitted via the phone.  To create a more accurate baseline, she turned to Instagram.  Traditionally, governments use Instagram as a marketing tool similar to other image-heavy social media platforms.  But Dunlap used it as a data-gathering tool.  She sent the city’s code enforcement officers throughout the city to snap photos of blighted properties and post them to a city Instagram account.  Data collection through this method gave a larger, and more accurate, number of blighted properties through the city.

The data collected through Instagram served as a starting point for the city’s efforts to deal with blight.  Instagram offers many advantages to the code enforcement officers.  First, it is easy to use and readily available.  Second, it maps the general location of the photos.  Because the app records the location of the photo, the innovation team could see where concentrations of blight occurred on a map.  Third, the app is free.  When a team needs a quick implementation with no cost, a free tool like Instagram is a great option.  While the Instagram collection did not provide specific addresses or give detailed property conditions, it was enough to spark additional data collection efforts.  Mobile’s Geographic Information Systems department provided a better app to collect exact addresses.  Having the exact addresses allowed other departments to add more information to the record.  For example, the tax collection department added information about tax delinquency.  Eventually, this will create a well-rounded and detailed record for each blighted property.

Mobile’s use of Instagram provides an insightful contrast with the SeeClickFix application.  Instagram served as a free tool for city code enforcement officers to collect initial data on community blight.  The first iteration of data collection served as a proof for the effectiveness of collecting community-wide data and bolstered arguments for further tool development.  SeeClickFix is less centralized, relying on community stakeholders to submit issues to the app, which are then forwarded to city contacts.  SeeClickFix also allows a greater variety of physical structure issues to be recorded – from roads to lights to signage.  Mobile’s Instagram use focused on privately-owned buildings.  SeeClickFix allows community voting features, whereas Mobile’s solution will include information from multiple city departments to form a scorecard rating properties for city action.  However, both show how humans are drawn to taking photos as a record of a structure’s state and the ease of recording information through photo taking.  The case of Mobile offers a road map for other cities in using free social media platforms as initial pilots to spur more detailed data collection for city decision making.

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