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Syracuse to draw on software to manage vacant houses

New software that tracks clues about abandoned houses could help prevent blight in Syracuse.
Doug Letterman
via Flickr
New software that tracks clues about abandoned houses could help prevent blight in Syracuse.


Teri Cameron lives in Syracuse's Near West Side neighborhood, and has grown accustomed to watching people tramp through the yards of vacant houses.

"They figure it's a good cross walk," she quips.

Cameron is on a crusade to keep her yard nice - she's just set up a new fence to keep out those looking for a shortcut. But that doesn't solve the problem of the dilapidated houses that checkerboard her neighborhood.

Her solution?

"Knock 'em down," she says.

Keeping track

Cameron's neighborhood has the highest concentration of empty houses of any in the city, according to Paul Driscoll, commissioner of neighborhood and business development.

"If you were to map vacancy out, you would see a dense string of vacant structures that cut the city diagonally between the Near West Side, the Southwest neighborhood, and into the South Side of Syracuse," he says.

The city keeps track of around 1,800 empty houses. Dozens of city departments, ranging from code enforcement, to police and fire, to finance, note information about the city. But the software that holds the data for the empty houses is from the early 1980s.

Yeah, you read that right: 1980s.

One of the disadvantages of using software from the dawn of the computer age, according to Syracuse's head of planning and sustainability Andrew Maxwell, is that departments can't really cross reference all the information they're collecting.

"In the past ... those staffs didn’t think that there was really much connection between the data that they have, and the data another department might have," he says.

Maxwell says there are connections, but the city needed help making them.

Enter IBM, which recently awarded Syracuse up to $400,000 worth of softwareto help manage vacant buildings.

Maxwell expects the new program to analyze data like never before, to help manage the many challenges empty houses present. One example: the city will now be able to make the connection between missed property tax payments and homes that may be about to be foreclosed on (and therefore abandoned).

"So you can take all these variables," Maxwell says, "and look at them in a more holistic way in an attempt to  find where you're going to [have] more vacancy."

Syracuse is one of only 24 cities worldwide to receive the IBM grant, which comes from the philanthropic arm of the computer giant. IBM officials say they're hoping to glean information from the cities participating in the grant to help it market similar services to other municipalities.

Maxwell says Syracuse could be a case study for other cities, if the newfound ability to predict vacancy helps Syracuse target resources to keep neighborhoods  falling into blight.

But the fanciest, smartest computer processing program in the world is useless unless there’s data to feed it. That's where citizens come in, according to commissioner Driscoll. Residents are the "eyes and ears" of the city, he says, and their calls and complaints about blight and criminal activity are critical.

"They might never see a squad car go out," Driscoll says, "but it is tallied."
Those tallies help shape where police and code enforcement officers are dispatched. Which in turn helps keep more traffic off Teri Cameron's lawn.

Innovation Trail alumnus Ryan Morden is originally from Seattle. He graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor's in journalism, minoring in political science and Scandinavian studies. Morden was Morning Edition producer and reporter at WRVO before moving over to the Innovation Trail project. Before landing at WRVO, Morden covered the Washington State legislature as a correspondent for Northwest News Network (N3), a group of nine NPR affiliates in the northwest.
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