There have always been nosy neighbors. But sometimes, sharing information with the people around you can be useful.
That’s certainly the impetus behind neighborhood email discussion groups that offer up all the latest news about crime, missing pets and school closings. And many communities are making more sophisticated use of such data through mapping and geographic information systems (GIS).
Frogtown, a section of St. Paul, Minn., is taking mapping further than most. The Frogtown Neighborhood Association, with foundation support, has put together a mapping tool that brings together all manner of data -- public records, such as property lines and crime statistics; hand-collected tallies, such as the number of lampposts in alleyways; and information that residents have self-reported about their interests and organizational affiliations.
The result is a map that can look at any number of issues, and, perhaps more importantly, layer them together to see how different factors in the community interact. Early examples include sending targeted emails to residents in areas most immediately affected by crime waves and by sewer repair work. The association also paired information about residents who are interested in gardening with the locations of vacant lots to pick several spots for community gardens that would be most convenient for those likeliest to participate.
None of this has changed residents’ lives dramatically, but it has made it easier for an area of 17,000 people to use resources more efficiently and know more about what’s going on close to home. GIS maps have long been able to help residents learn more about structures and the physical environment, says Jeff Matson of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota. But the Frogtown project adds another element: more of the social aspects of residential life. “It’s fairly common in other places for nonprofit agencies or universities to create neighborhood mapping or profiles,” Matson says, “but not down to the level of trying to collect data from individual residents.”
That’s what makes this tool unique, says Tait Danielson Castillo, the association’s executive director. It’s based on information gathered by talking with people in the neighborhood, he says. “It’s a relationship-based system.”
Most such efforts require a lot of handholding and technical assistance from more experienced data collectors, but Matson says the Frogtown folks were self-starters. The type of information they’re collecting -- and getting residents to collect -- is becoming a lot easier as clunky and expensive GIS devices give way to smartphones. “They hired a private software developer to create this site,” he says. “The idea now is to replicate it at a much lower cost for similar groups.”