Winter-Spring 2002

Community Mapping for Neighborhood Knowledge in Los Angeles
by Bill Pitkin and Nick Rattray

Background: Data Integration and Dissemination

The Neighborhood Knowledge Los Angeles (NKLA) project began in 1996 as a web portal for people concerned with improving the conditions of Los Angeles neighborhoods. From the beginning of the project, NKLA has provided free access to a wide range of property and neighborhood data sets, information that can help community residents and activists in Los Angeles monitor neighborhood conditions by tracking early-warning indicators of decline. For example, users can map out indicators such as tax delinquencies, code complaints, or nuisance properties across the city in color-shaded maps to track where conditions are worst. They can also compare these trends with other demographic trends using census data. Moreover, they can access detailed historical property data such as code violations, building permits, and tax liens.

Presentation by Community Coalition

The motto of NKLA, proudly displayed at the top of the welcome page, has always been, "Neighborhood improvement and recovery is not just for the experts!" NKLA was largely designed with community residents and community-based organizations in mind. To our surprise, however, the earliest frequent users of the web site were not community activists, but rather staff from local governmental agencies. We had given policy makers and staff from city council offices and departments such as Housing, Building and Safety, and Community Development a tool for easily accessing data that they should have been able to get through a phone call, but—for one reason or another—preferred to get by going to our web site. Through funding from the US Department of Commerce's Technology Opportunities Program (1998-2001), we were able to conduct extensive community outreach and training on how to take advantage of the data and tools on NKLA for community improvement.

A New Innovation: Community Mapping on the Web

As part of our community-based outreach, we've done training in many community technology centers and community-based organizations throughout Los Angeles over the past three years, and this helped increase usage by community residents and activists. However, we still recognized that there was a need for a greater role for community residents in the project. It was suggested by community partners that we allow residents to be not only consumers of information, but also producers of information on NKLA. Besides governmental data, an important part of neighborhood knowledge is the everyday experience of community residents. In line with a "community building" strategy of community development, we began to look to residents to map out their knowledge of the neighborhoods in which they live. Following the "asset-based community development" approach, popularized by John Kretzmann and John McKnight from Northwestern University's ABCD Institute, we began to work with youth groups and students to map out community assets in the Boyle Heights and Vernon Central neighborhoods of Los Angeles. This asset mapping approach has become increasingly popular in community building projects, and NKLA's Inter Active Mapping Los Angeles (I AM LA) application went one step further by linking this process to the web. Participants enter property-level information into the NKLA data base though a simple web form, thus decentralizing the data collection process. These data points are then displayed on a dynamic map on NKLA, where users can view the community-created data on maps or lists with associated data.

Community Mapping Projects in Los Angeles

During the summer of 2001, NKLA worked intensively with three different community groups on creating their own web-based mapping systems. With the help of VISTA interns, the NKLA team worked with Youth United for Community Change (YUCA) in the Crenshaw district, the Neighborhoods Fighting Back (NFB) group in South LA, and the Pacoima Beautiful Youth Environmentalists (PBYES) in the Pacoima neighborhood. Each of the groups gave dynamic public presentations of their work at the 2001 NKLA User Conference. The fact that each of these groups had their own approach and geographic focus necessitated a web application and training program that was both flexible and customizable.

As a youth organizing program dedicated to cultivating grassroots leadership, YUCA was looking to use the I AM LA project as means to raise awareness about social and environmental justice in their neighborhood. Since the YUCA youth had taken part in previous training on asset mapping, we focused mostly on asset collection, input and ways to publicize their findings. In a short six week period, the group was able to collect and input 27 assets with full descriptions and images in categories ranging from churches and schools to "kick-it" spots. YUCA drove the process by selecting their own categories and publishing their project in a magazine.

Community-based organizations seeks to show environmental, youth, and recreational assets in their neighborhood.

NFB's work remedying "nuisance" properties took the I AM LA application in new direction. Instead of mapping assets in their neighborhood, NFB leaders envisioned I AM LA as a way to monitor various liquor stores and motels that they had been organizing against since the civil unrest of 1992. In addition, NFB was composed almost entirely of seniors eager to utilize their little-used computer skills. Working closely with NKLA staff, NFB converted many of their paper records into a database on NKLA, and mapped nuisance sites throughout South Los Angeles. Included in their database was information on crime activities, dates of public hearings, and an automated tool for inputting additional comments on each nuisance. To date, NFB has presented their work to city agencies and plans to expand the database to capture all of their historical work.

In Pacoima, the process of community mapping was at least as important as the maps and data that were produced. PBYES was interested in cataloging the cultural and artistic assets in their neighborhood as a method of promoting positive local images. However, as a relatively new group, community mapping was used a means of leadership development for the youth. PBYES's asset maps are part of larger vision of using mapping as a tool for community empowerment by designating potential development sites and organizing for increased resources for youth in Pacoima.

Lessons for Building Community and Neighborhood Knowledge

The experience of using NKLA for community mapping has enhanced the community building process in several ways. First, it has served as a vehicle for training youth and seniors on how to utilize information technology and electronic media in their daily lives. For example, the youth in Pacoima used asset mapping to find previously unknown locations and individuals in their neighborhood. Second, I AM LA functions as an efficient data management tool that enables community groups to better document and archive community information. NFB adopted I AM LA as their own information system in order to better share and standardize their data collection. Third, web-enabled community mapping allows them to produce maps and data instantly, and share that information broadly. This means that groups can share their knowledge of their neighborhoods to a wide audience in a variety of formats. For example, YUCA plans to present their research findings to their city council member as a slideshow presentation to argue for increased youth resources. NFB has presented their online maps to local officials as documentary materials in public nuisance cases.Apart from its value to community groups, the community mapping process provides a vital service for other consumers of neighborhood information. I AM LA serves as a platform to organize and present the vastly untapped knowledge base of local residents and neighborhood groups. When this is integrated with other public datasets, it becomes a powerful snapshot that has the ability to aid substantially in building community and neighborhood knowledge.

Bill Pitkin and Nick Rattray both work at the UCLA Advanced Policy Institute and have overseen much of the technical and outreach work on NKLA. To see the community mapping work described in this article, login to the "Data & Maps" section of NKLA and click on "I AM LA." For additional information on the political and technical background to NKLA, check out the "NKLA How-To Kit" in the "Help" section of the site, where you will also find evaluation documents.

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