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In Detroit, Using Technology to Fight Urban Blight


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, the battle-hardened Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers meet again in the NBA playoffs.

First, this. Geographical information systems use technology, satellites and computers to help us better see all sorts of things: the Earth and what's on it. Business loves GIS; so do governments. Now a community group in Detroit is using GIS to help clean up local neighborhoods. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

Computers, satellites and teen-agers--not too atypical a combination--but add GIS mapping technology and it brings a whole new perspective to the neighborhood cleanup. Michael Fisher, the head of Detroit Community Initiative, worked with professors at Wayne State University to devise a program that teaches teen-agers about community problems and seeks their help in solving them.

Mr. MICHAEL FISHER (Detroit Community Initiative): So they become familiar with neighborhood standards, you know, codes, and they see junk cars or dangerous abandoned homes. Well, why are they like that? Why isn't someone maintaining the property? Why is that junk car still out in the street?

CORLEY: About twice a year the teen-agers and the community group's GIS Youth Corps take to the streets. This day, President Fisher drives the van.

(Soundbite of automobile engine)

Mr. FISHER: So what we want to do is just drive through the area, look for recent demolition activity, take...

CORLEY: Fisher breaks down the itinerary. Seventeen-year-old Terrell Kendrick, sitting in the front passenger seat, boots a laptop computer. He places a global positioning device on the dashboard. It tracks the van's progress on the map that's popped up on the laptop screen. An emblem of a small car travels along the Detroit streets. Kendrick points to the colorful map legends, codes that provide details about the condition of the neighborhood. A red icon signifies a dangerous building; green, a vacant lot. A blue symbol marks the location of junk cars; brown means trash. Kendrick calls it geocoding.

TERRELL KENDRICK (GIS Youth Corps): On the screen we have, you know, the regular status for the vacant homes, and then we can also add other problems, like say if they have vacant--abandoned car and there was a vacant home, we can geocode and put in both of the problems for that location.

CORLEY: This is the northeast section of Detroit. In one area, the brick bungalows and A-frame houses are neat, and there's little evidence of the blight that plagues so many of the city's neighborhoods. Then Fisher veers around a corner.

Mr. FISHER: Now we're on Hayes, and we're getting ready to go into what I refer to as the belly of the beast. As I slow down here, I want you to look to the left, down the block, and see all the beautiful stable housing, beautiful brick bungalows. Now we're going to turn to the right.

CORLEY: There's plenty to see and not to see. About 35 percent of the former housing is gone. There's enough space in this section of the city, says Fisher, to grow corn. Garbage and abandoned cars litter the streets. Some houses, slated for demolition, are marked with the letter D. Kendrick starts clicking codes on the computer map as he looks at one burned-out hulk of a house.

KENDRICK: As you see, it's a lot of fire damage to the upper roof, and then you have the roof debris coming down. On the property you see tires, a lot of the roofing shingles broken down, a lot of wood. The front door's kicked wide open.

CORLEY: Another student in the back of the van, Alisha Rogers, lifts a digital camera and takes a few shots of the neighborhood ruin.

ALISHA ROGERS (GIS Youth Corps): As we map the community and I'm taking a picture of the process that he updates.

CORLEY: Once this mobile mapping is complete, it's back to the computer lab. Rogers says students use the GIS software to create maps to show city officials and police where derelict housing and abandoned cars and other problems are located.

ROGERS: We usually recommend like for one, like, abandoned cars that like if we provide them with the information that they go out and they ticket these cars or tow them, and use like the tires for like artificial turf for football fields or basketball courts, you know, just to recycle the stuff. I think that what we are doing is help beautifying Detroit, so I'm kind of glad that I'm in a program to help my community.

CORLEY: And the government helps the teens learn how to contact government officials in a professional way. The GIS Youth Corps recently used its mapping expertise to locate and take down signs illegally posted on utility poles. As their cleanup efforts continue, the city of Detroit has launched its own Motor City Makeover, a monthlong cleanup campaign. Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

CHADWICK: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.