By John Gallagher

With a smartphone and special app, you can help the City of Detroit stay on top of its blight removal efforts by snapping shots of derelict properties and texting them to a public database.

The Motor City Mapping database, a comprehensive digital map of Detroit properties that Mayor Mike Duggan has likened to "Star Wars" wizardry, is going public next week.

By potentially enlisting thousands of Detroiters in the effort to keep the new database current, the developers hope to take a tool that's already good and make it great. Staffers from the nonprofit Data Driven Detroit and the consulting firm Loveland Technologies, which created the database, will start training community activists and others to contribute new information about neighborhood properties.

The technology in effect launches an interactive conversation between city officials and citizens over the condition of neighborhoods down to individual houses and vacant lots.

"This is pretty awesome, because for the first time the residents of the city and the city itself are going to be using the same set of tools to solve these problems. We really are one community, one city trying to fight blight using these tools," said Sean Jackson, an executive associate with Rock Ventures who is working on the database.

Up to now, the website has provided a detailed snapshot of the city, its neighborhoods and individual parcels. But the public has had no way of adding, subtracting or correcting information. Only insiders could do that.

Once it gets rolling, the Motor City Mapping effort will allow every citizen to contribute to the database of roughly 380,000 parcels in the city and to search for detailed information on properties in his or her neighborhood. That means that everyone from home buyers and urban farmers to police officers and firefighters will be able to access and update detailed information on every parcel in the city, including the property's condition, its most recent sale price, whether it is occupied or vacant, and more.

For example, if you want to know which properties in a particular neighborhood are in foreclosure but still have people living there, that information is just a few clicks away.

Motor City Mapping was a project to assess the condition of virtually all of the city's 380,000 parcels. Using dozens of teams that drove by every parcel in the city, the effort produced a digital map of every property that included a photograph and information on whether the parcel has a building on it, the condition of the building, whether it is occupied, fire damaged, or in need of demolition, and more.

The database provided the background for the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force's comprehensive report that was issued in May. The task force members, Quicken Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert, Detroit Public Schools Foundation President Glenda Price and U-Snap-Bac Director Linda Smith, outlined in their report the many challenges, opportunities and requirements involved in ridding Detroit of blight.

The effort has added a new word to Detroit's lexicon -- "blexting" -- to describe the act of sending in a new photo and survey data to the central team to add to the database.

Using a tablet computer or smartphone, the public will be able to blext -- a combination of "blight" and "texting" -- up-to-the-minute information on properties in the city that will go into the digital map.

Charity Dean, a staffer with the Detroit Land Bank Authority, said the Motor City Mapping database allows the city to share detailed information about every parcel in the city with community activists, church groups, business operators and the public.

Getting citizens involved is important because Data Driven Detroit and other managers of the database can conduct a citywide drive-by update of all parcels only once a year at most. In between those surveys, thousands of properties in the city will see their condition change from year to year.

"As we're doing demolitions, as we're doing our nuisance abatements, it's going to be important that we're all working on the same data, and that that data is always up to date. This tool is going to help us do that," Dean said.

Once trained, volunteers and staffers for community groups, churches and citizens will be able to survey their neighborhoods, blexting in photos and data on properties that, say, have suffered fire damage or found a new owner. The quality checking team at Data Driven Detroit and Loveland will review the submission and, once they verify it, will use it to update the database.

In addition to the thousands of updates that citizens may be blexting in each year, the data team itself hopes to conduct another citywide drive-by survey once each year to refresh the database.

The result, Jackson said, is that Detroit will possess the most detailed digital description of every parcel in the city that's available in any American metro area.

"We're going to be able to do things we've never been able to do before," he said.

(c)2014 the Detroit Free Press