Can Crowd-Sourced Mapping Change Government Policy?

Interactive mapping is about more than just fun and games and Grindr-style hookups and helping me find the best subway line to take to get to a morning meeting on time.

Crowd-sourced mapping has the potential to impact people’s lives in truly transformative ways. Ushahidi was developed as a way to help people document and keep themselves safe from ethnic violence in Kenya, in the wake of a disputed election. In the Bay Area, when a police officer was convicted of manslaughter even though he shot and killed an unarmed, handcuffed Black man named Oscar Grant who was lying on the ground on his stomach, and the police prepared a riot squad response in anticipation of an uprising, protesters developed an open map at, so that peaceful demonstrators could avoid the violence of overzealous cops.

Picture the Homeless is betting that the power of crowd-sourced mapping can go deeper than that. We think it can get progressive legislation passed, and forever change New York City housing policy. We recently deployed an Ushahidi-based open map called VACANT NYC that will help us get an accurate count of vacant property citywide.

For years, homeless people have been demanding action from city government around the massive numbers of vacant buildings and lots in New York City. While the city spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on providing shelter to the homeless, perfectly good property languishes in the hands of private landlords and city agencies. That’s why homeless folks drafted Intro 48, a city council bill that would empower the city to conduct an annual count of vacant buildings and lots.

But government officials say vacant property is not a problem… and even if it was, there’s no money to count these properties. To prove that vacant property is still a huge problem in this city, and that a census of these buildings and lots can be accomplished without breaking the bank, we’re turning this project over to the public. VACANT NYC lets New Yorkers send a text message or an email or fill out an online form, every time they see a vacant building or lot anywhere in the five boroughs.

Our little map is already getting big buzz. It was featured prominently in a recent article documenting the fight for Intro 48. This was subsequently picked-up as a featured story in the Housing and Land Use News Digest of NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.

Other allies in the housing struggle have covered the map, including the Campaign to Restore National Housing Rights:

If VACANT NYC can prove that this is still a major problem, and that an accurate census of under-utilized property can be cost-effectively accomplished through participatory mapping, it’ll be a major revolution in the way that open-source technology impacts public policy.

So please – help us out! If you see something, say something. Tell us about vacant property in New York City. Publicize VACANT NYC on your own blog/website/Facebook/Twitter/Whatever. We are re-making the world as we map it; let’s make sure we map the kind of world we want to live in.

Posted on: August 27, 2010, by : Sam J. M.
File under: Blog