The LISC Institute asked Jerry Paffedorf, co-founder and CEO of LOVELAND Technologies, about the company, the state of data and digital capacity in the Community Development field, and how practitioners can innovate to better do our work.
Sure thing! We started mapping property information in Detroit in 2010 because there was a huge need to know who owns that house or vacant lot at the end of the street. Then, during Detroit’s bankruptcy in 2013-2014, the White House and a local taskforce of business, foundation, and community leaders came forward and asked if we could map and quantify the city’s “blight problem” — vacant houses, damaged buildings, dumping, etc. Working with other local partners, we launched an initiative, Motor City Mapping.
We hired Detroiters to visit every single parcel of property in the city, take pictures and describe the current land use, occupancy, and condition with our mapping software and mobile app. We published the findings on motorcitymapping.org, making the information available to both residents and government. This effort was a huge success and influenced a lot of other activity, from planning and fundraising and strengthening the land bank, to prompting the development of an open data policy for the city.
We also decided to start assembling nationwide parcel data on our makeloveland.com site so that the same kind of thing could happen anywhere in the country. To date, we have included 137 million parcels, covering where 95% of people in the US live.
Generally, there are two ways to work with our team and use our software. One easy way is to subscribe, either as an individual, team, or organization, to use our tools. Prices vary depending on the level of engagement, including an unlimited package that lets you create as many accounts as you want inside of your city or county. It’s like Oprah but with LOVELAND accounts instead of cars. You get a map! You get a map! You get a map!
We can also go deeper by customizing a project with a partner who needs more support or something more custom. In those cases, we really sit down and plan something specific to the needs of a place and create a budget and strategy to execute it. Sometimes we’ll be asked to send members of our team to spend time in a place to manage and execute a large-scale property survey. An example of a custom project that we’re proud of is working with The Genesee County Land Bank and City of Flint to create http://flintpropertyportal.com which automatically updates multiple datasets and provides public access to property surveying tools in an easy, branded interface.
Our favorite kinds of partners are typically government or community organizations who are trying to improve the quality of life for their residents and neighbors. At this point we’ve had the opportunity to work in so many cities and towns that I have a hard time remembering them all off the top of my head. This makes things fun, though, as there’s always something we’ll see that reminds us of something we saw somewhere else, and so we’re able to recommend best practices from other places, tailored to fit the local need.
Working with LISC Cincinnati was great because Kathy Schwab (LISC Cincinnati’s Executive Director) and her team were fun, friendly, and professional, and could really assemble a room full of stakeholders. We had gone back and forth on an approach to marry new property data and local programs, and decided to look at what were thought to be vacant residential properties across Hamilton County. We assessed their actual occupancy, condition, and ownership for a program with the Urban Land Institute called, “100% Housing.”
To get them started, we created a vacancy model for the county that combined US Postal Service Vacancy data, water data, and the local list of vacant buildings. Once we agreed upon the universe of possible residential vacancies, Kathy’s team managed worked with local college students to deploy the survey and make sure everything was collected properly.
In general, I think it’s always preferable to work with local surveyors and canvassers — the more local to a neighborhood the better. If you know the area, care about it, and are comfortable being there, you just get better results and create more opportunities for trusted community engagement. It’s also not uncommon for a dedicated and thoughtful surveyor to be noticed as someone with leadership skills and offered other job opportunities, so we have seen it be an effective workforce development strategy as well.
Some of the biggest issues I see are affordability, internal capacity to work with data, and a growing abundance of data-y things that can make it hard to choose the right tool.
LOVELAND has always tried to price its tools affordably, but even still it can take a very very very very very (did I say very?) long time for community development organizations to get budgets together and make payments. This is understandable because they are often under-funded, have strict processes to ensure accountability, and have their own timelines for receiving grants (and fears about not receiving them — grants are nerve-wracking and fickle). Sometimes we get asked if we have nonprofit prices, and we have to say, “You’re looking at them.”
But these organizations are our favorite partners; it’s where our heart is. We could reorient ourselves to target real estate firms, but we’ve tried to remain focused on mission-oriented partners. Ideally over time we will find more sustained, multi-year partnerships that allow us all to rest easier and dig into the work without keeping half an eye on the calendar and the bank account. If we weren’t so stubborn and focused on getting our tools out to people whose work we appreciate, challenges and all, we probably would have pivoted (as they say in the biz) a long time ago.
On internal data capacity, our tools make it very easy to collect and work with property data — including existing data – and visualize it more cleanly and formatted more workably. The dream is to make everyone a mapmaker and data person the same way that most people are now writers and can do some basic spreadsheet jockeying if needed — opening and sorting columns, basic things. And we have seen this be the case with our tools in many instances, but there are still only 24 hours in a day, and it still helps to have someone with data and mapping skills on board whose life we help make easier and who has a mandate to make the most of them. Shout-out to the overworked data person on nearly every team. We love you.
LOVELAND’s tools do something very important — foundational really: they help you understand the land grid of the areas where you are working, serving people and deploying resources. But there’s lots of different kinds of data, and even different kinds of mapping tools that can be better suited for different jobs. There is no one-size-fits-every-challenge data tool, and if someone is selling you one you probably don’t want it because you won’t be able to use it. To get around this, we’ve made our tools something you can put data into and take data out of for use in other systems as needed, and we’ve tried to price it in such a way that it’s not the only purchase you can make.
The question of how to innovate, boy, that’s a big one. We all deal with such seasonality in this line of work — fickle funders, elected leaders, fashionable trends. People say Einstein said “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” You might have tried something that didn’t work last year, and so you write it off, but it’s exactly what would have worked this year. And vice verse. I don’t think I know enough about the nuances of the space to make an overall recommendation from a practitioners point of view, but I am confident enough in what I’ve seen come from our work to say that everyone in the community development space should know their land grids — what exists where, who owns what, what’s for sale, vacant, otherwise available for use, etc.
The beginning of a trend that we’re seeing with our work is going beyond property surveys for land use, condition, and occupancy, and actually knocking on doors to interview people. It’s such a simple evolution, but we’re seeing more people use our mobile app for that, and have outsized results. The dream, if you can create the trust, is to know not only the property, but the needs and wants of the residents at the household level. We’ve seen these door-to-door efforts take a huge bite out of Detroit’s insane tax foreclosure problem, and we’ve seen pioneering efforts in Pittsburgh by our partners at Jackson-Clark to do Community Census work. I see this area growing and really benefiting community development organizations in their ability to deliver results and be truly appreciated by their constituents (and funders). If someone can nail the trust issue and actually deliver things of value to the people who want and need them, there could be a whole new impact model that changes lives for the better.
We first started mapping the auction dots on the map back in 2010 before we understood anything about it. They were just dots on a map — a crazy number of dots — and a potential opportunity for someone to purchase and do something with cheap property.
During the Motor City Mapping citywide property survey we discovered how many of the incoming dots were occupied. We also discovered that tax foreclosure was the leading cause of blight and vacancy in the city, as people leave or are evicted after foreclosure. We thought for sure that this knowledge would quickly lead to change, but it didn’t. Things kept working the same way even though everyone could now see it.
I can’t tell you how hard we’ve had to work to help make a change in this area. Working with the Treasurer’s office, running for Treasurer to propose a platform for change, attending monthly foreclosure meetings in the Mayor’s office for years, working with advocates, working with activists, becoming advocates and activists, supporting lawsuits, writing op-eds, filing FOIA requests, damaging relationships with funders who wanted us to leave the issue alone, going door-to-door unpaid to reach people. It has honestly been one of the craziest things I’ve seen in my whole life, and I’ve seen a few. But over time the data work and storytelling and advocacy we did has mattered.
Easy. Check out our site and some case studies at makeloveland.com and click around your city or neighborhood to imagine filling it up with the kind of information you need to do your job better and accomplish more. Then write us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 313-649-LAND (too cute, we know). There are a dozen of us on the team, we love what we do, and we’re easy to work with. That right there probably makes us a little bit special all by itself.
Thank you for taking the time to ask us these questions, and thank you for all the work you do!