Open Data Helps Create Community Spaces

In 2014, the City of Pittsburgh, in partnership with the Allegheny County and the University of Pittsburgh, began to make City data open and accessible to everyone. Our regional open data platform, Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, currently houses over 250 data sets. As part of the Open Data effort, we’ve reached out to different Pittsburgh residents, community groups, non-profits, and researchers to see how they have been using this data to improve Pittsburgh. Read the full Open Data Progress Report for more user stories and the history of open data in Pittsburgh.

Anna Archer is a Project Specialist at GTECH Strategies. GTECH uses the City’s vacant lot data to help identify and transition vacant lots into useful and collaborative community spaces.

What does GTECH do?

GTECH focuses on land-use issues and we do this through addressing vacant land. We work alongside residents, policy makers, and like-minded organizations to identify vacant lots and transition them into community spaces. Vacant lots are typically seen as obstacles; we feel like could actually be used as an opportunity to engage residents. We provide the resources and tools necessary to transition these lots to whatever the community has in mind. We work from within and help their visions to become a reality.

What kind of programs do you have?

We have a couple of key programs. One is our Ambassador Program, which has cohorts of 10–12 residents in communities throughout the county. We provide a variety of educational sessions and cover anything from getting started with a vacant land project to bringing in designers. Then, we work with them to implement their ideas.

What neighborhoods are you primarily based in?

We truly work all over Allegheny County. This year, we were specifically focused on Homewood, Larimer, Northside, Hilltop neighborhoods, as well as Mon Valley communities like McKeesport and Clairton.

What is the definition of a vacant lot?

To me, a vacant lot is a neglected lot that does not have a structure on it. We are looking for things that have been neglected and are in high traffic areas in a community and therefore, affect the quality of life of community members nearby. You don’t really think about vacant lots until you live near one and pass it every day and wonder what is that piece of land doing there? Could it be a valuable asset for the community?

What do you do within GTECH?

I am a Project Specialist and I typically work on the community engagement side of programs. Right now, I work with the URA LandCare program. The URA put out an RFP to have a firm look at their vacant land maintenance process and bring more equity and community benefit to the program. GTECH and the URA worked together to break down the URA’s portfolio of vacant land and separate it into bundles that are concentrated in seven communities in Pittsburgh. These communities have higher rates of vacancy and they put out contracts for small business owners and non-profits in the area to maintain those bundles of vacant lots. This allows several community organizations and small businesses to play a part in the vacant land maintenance and use in their area. The contractors use a mobile application to report on their site maintenance and these reports go up on our site, Lots to Love. People who live nearby can monitor the progress and keep up with the changes in their neighborhood.

How are you using City data for these projects?

We start with looking up vacant lots and looking at a couple key data points on Burgh’s Eye View: ownership, tax delinquency, address, block, and lot number.

How do you choose which vacant lots to work on?

We are looking for residents to come to us with lots that could use some care. They come to us with a site or address in mind and our team assesses ownership and history using the City’s data. We recognize that community members know their neighborhoods better than anyone else. Sometimes we’ll look up the information and the resident will say “Oh I know them, they moved a few years back.” They can help us piece together the story of a vacant lot and how it came to be that way. We will then consider the various ways to gain access to a site and determine if it is an appropriate site for a project.

What did you do before Burgh’s Eye View?

We used Lots to Love but the information is not updated as often. That’s one reason we want to integrate data from the Parcel Map with our Lots to Love map to ensure it is easily accessible and open. Now, we can do visual assessments of a neighborhood or community easily and identify bundles of vacant homes. It makes the process much faster and keeps the information in a central location.

What do these vacant lots usually turn into?

We work to transform vacant lots into community greenspace and engage communities throughout the entire process. Based on the community’s needs and interests, a vacant lot might become an outdoor classroom, a community garden, a gateway garden, or a space to gather and celebrate the residents who live there.