Computerized Neighborhood Environment Tracking

Worcester Regional Research Bureau

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Introduction

Many cities and towns in Massachusetts suffer from deteriorating physical conditions in some neighborhoods. Remedying these deficiencies is crucial to solving other urban ills such as crime, unemployment, and poor school performance. ComNET (Computerized Neighborhood Environment Tracking) is a tool for bringing together citizens and technology to identify and resolve these physical problems. Using handheld computers and digital cameras, teams of Worcester residents and college students have systematically documented more than 11,000 deficiencies on neighborhood streets, sidewalks, and properties since 2001. Because of this abundant, accurate, and practical information, municipal agencies and neighborhood associations have been able to resolve two-thirds of problems identified, improving the quality of life in Worcester’s neighborhoods.

The Problem

Unlike the many cities in New England that have been losing population, the City of Worcester has grown modestly over the last two decades. With a population of 175,000, Worcester remains the second largest city in Massachusetts. However, during the past few decades, Worcester, like many other cities its age, has lost much of the industrial base that brought it into prominence in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is still a city of immigrants, but these immigrants are no longer from Europe, but from Africa, Asia, and South and Central America. Students in the Worcester Public Schools are more likely to be minority, low-income, and limited-English proficient than they were just a decade ago.

The barons of the past industrial age did leave a rich cultural and educational legacy, including the Worcester Art Museum, Mechanics Hall, the Higgins Armory Museum, and nine colleges including Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Holy Cross, Clark University, and Assumption College. Today, the economy is dominated by institutions of higher education and health care, including the University of Massachusetts Medical School (opened in 1974) whose research, along with that of WPI, has spawned a biotechnology-bioengineering industry in Worcester.

In 1993, the city manager decided to involve Worcester’s residents in the development of its first strategic plan. He appointed to the Strategic Planning Committee two dozen members from around the city, representing diverse interests and backgrounds. The committee held five public hearings across the City, and then met with a facilitator to incorporate the findings of those hearings into a seven-year strategic plan, composed of five goals:

  1. Improve the academic achievement of students in the Worcester Public Schools;
  2. Increase economic development;
  3. Improve public safety;
  4. Improve municipal and neighborhood services;
  5. Improve youth services.

However, while the city council and public were kept informed of the resources being devoted to these goals, no one was tracking measurable outcomes, such as decreases in the crime rate or improvements in student test cores. The Worcester Regional Research Bureau, which had served on the 1993 committee that established the plan and goals, decided to take on the task of measuring government performance.

The Research Bureau had been founded in 1985 by Worcester businesspeople concerned about the transformation of the city’s economy and its capacity to sustain essential services and citizens’ quality of life. Its mission is to serve the public interest of the Greater Worcester region by conducting independent, non-partisan research and analysis of public policy issues to promote informed public debate and decision-making.

In 1999, the Research Bureau began working with groups of citizens representing a broad cross-section of the community to develop and refine measures that would benchmark Worcester’s progress toward achieving each of the Strategic Planning Committee’s five goals. In 2000, it received a planning grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to develop a three-year project to institute citizen-driven government performance measurement in Worcester. While researching similar projects, it learned about a program designed by the Fund for the City of New York’s Center of Municipal Government called ComNET (Computerized Neighborhood Environment Tracking), which can be used to benchmark neighborhood services. The Research Bureau modified the program to fit Worcester’s specific character, circumstances, and challenges.

The Solution

Worcester’s version of ComNET is a system of biennial objective surveys of the physical conditions of its most socio-economically challenged neighborhoods, in which almost one-third (55,000) of the city’s residents live. While the physical problems plaguing the neighborhoods are not news to their residents or municipal officials, before the implementation of ComNET there was no centralized means of collecting and reporting these problems to the appropriate municipal agency, or of tracking their resolution. ComNET surveys enable residents and officials to identify and document more than 275 specific problems affecting residents’ quality of life, for example: potholes, faded crosswalks, abandoned vehicles, illegal dumping, or overgrown vegetation. Once neighborhoods have this inventory, they not only have a “punch list” of problems, but also a baseline for gauging the performance of city government in resolving these problems.

Before implementing the ComNET system and technology, the Research Bureau had to complete some important preparatory work. Its first step was to engage in extended discussion with neighborhood associations on how to define neighborhood boundaries, as well which problems to record. The second step was to create detailed maps for each of the neighborhoods that were to be surveyed, along with the routes to be followed, and then to program handheld computers with those streets and the physical features, and conditions to be recorded.

The actual process falls into three parts: recording, analyzing, and distribution. Traveling in teams of three or four (typically a scout to keep the team on its prescribed route, the unit user to input findings, and one or two others to point out trouble spots), participants record the deficiencies they observe on drop-down menus (for example, “lines fading” or “roof/chimney broken”) falling under three dozen different broad categories of physical features (for example, “Building- Residential” or “Crosswalks”).

Once the data is uploaded, users are able to generate a variety of spreadsheets depending on their desired analysis or action. Once the data from each survey is analyzed by Research Bureau staff, it is shared with neighborhood associations, giving them a clearer picture of specific areas of need and helping them to set priorities. Each municipal department receives a detailed electronic listing of the location and type of problems for which it is responsible, and if these problems are not already known to it, they are added to its workload. City departments and neighborhoods are then better able to identify problems, determine responsibility, plan actions, and record progress.

Four neighborhoods in Worcester piloted the program in 2001, and four more were added in each of the following two years. Two have been added more recently. The fifty surveys completed during the last five years have led to the documentation of more than 516 assets (including potential partners such as schools, churches, and community centers) and 11,000 problems, for example: litter in more than 1,700 locations, more than 1,400 sidewalk trip hazards, and 1,300 instances of overgrown vegetation.

ComNET has led to a long list of quantitative and qualitative improvements in Worcester:

  1. While residents had long complained of a perceived increase in abandoned vehicles, ComNET surveys made it possible to document the extent of the problem by pinpointing the exact location of each one. Since Worcester’s Department of Public Works (DPW) assumed control of the abandoned vehicle removal program in 2003, more than 7,000 vehicles have been removed from the streets. The program, which was aided by the DPW’s abandoned vehicle hotline, now pays for itself through the collection of fines and storage fees.
  2. Instead of having residents wait to re-survey their neighborhoods to know whether a problem had been resolved, the DPW established a customer service center with a single phone number to provide residents direct access to municipal government for registering complaints and making requests and inquiries. The center responded to over 115,000 calls, 1,100 walk-ins, and 800 emails in FY06. About one-quarter resulted in work orders logged and tracked electronically by call takers who collect all necessary information before transmitting requests to the responsible municipal agency. The work order is tracked (allowing a resident to call the customer service center for updates) and closed when the issue is resolved.
  3. The customer service center has both cut response times and saved thousands of dollars a year because fewer people are needed to answer phones. (Prior to this, there were 15 different service numbers for the DPW.) It has recently incorporated handheld computers in the field to expedite further problem resolution and a web-based component to allow citizens to submit requests online is in development.
  4. The kind of quantitative evidence that ComNET is able to deliver has been able to sway political priorities and funding. While Worcester residents and the DPW have long been aware of the poor condition of the streets and sidewalks, it was ComNET’s ability to generate numbers and locations that have led to increased funding and a plan for remediation. The FY07 budget included $2 million from a tax levy for street and sidewalk repair, plus $6.9 million in capital funding. The city manager has proposed a five-year funding plan of $44.5 million.

As a result of these innovations, about two-thirds of all the problems recorded have been resolved since the program began six years ago.

ComNET has also improved how city residents understand the work of the municipal government. ComNET data, for example, have dispelled the perception that some neighborhoods get favored treatment from municipal government, since there have been similar resolution rates for problems across neighborhoods. It has also led the residents to take on more responsibility for physical deficiencies in their neighborhoods. For example, according to the commissioner of public works and parks, because of the process of documenting deficiencies, residents now understand the issue of demand versus resources and that the city does not have the budget to address every issue at the same time. That same process of documentation has led to a more complete understanding of who exactly is responsible for remedying which kind of deficiencies. ComNET’s spreadsheets not only list deficiencies but also clearly designate the agency responsible for remedying each, which, in about 25 percent of the cases, is the community itself.

With this information in hand, neighborhood residents have shown an admirable willingness to step in and deal with these deficiencies themselves. If there is debris accumulating in someone’s driveway or yard, for example, neighborhood activists know to approach the homeowner directly. In the case of residents who might not have the physical or financial wherewithal to repair or clean up their property, community members have frequently chipped in to get the work done.

Finally, the ComNET program is helping break down some of the traditional barriers between Worcester and its institutions of higher education. The Research Bureau has teamed up with Holy Cross to incorporate ComNET into the service-learning component of its curriculum. As part of two courses in urban policy and politics, Holy Cross students join up with the neighborhood teams in conducting the surveys. To accommodate the academic calendar, four surveys are conducted in the fall and four in the spring. As a result of this partnership, the neighborhoods gain volunteers and get to know students as more than intruders in their neighborhoods, and the students become more integrated in the city and gain practical knowledge of the challenges facing urban areas. The partnership with Holy Cross is just one example of how ComNET can be adapted to local circumstances and opportunity.

Costs

The initial outlay for the handhelds, cameras, and map preparation was approximately $20,000. The handhelds and the program were upgraded once since 2001. The staff time involved in organizing and conducting eight surveys each year, generating reports, maintaining the database (FCNY is paid $5,000 per year to store data and generate reports), and meeting with neighborhood associations and city officials is about $20,000 per year. With such low costs, budgetary considerations should not stand in the way of duplicating this program in other cities.

Application to Other Municipalities

Clearly, the same sort of problems that plagued Worcester affects most urban areas, in Massachusetts and across the nation. However, ComNET is not merely a technology. The program depends on the right institutional configuration and community commitment. One of the key factors is a credible, independent third party, like the Research Bureau, that takes responsibility for the project. Although the Research Bureau did not have a long history of working with neighborhood associations, it did have longstanding credibility as an independent, non-partisan agency. Knowing that it was not an arm of municipal government gave these groups the comfort level they needed. After working with the first set of four neighborhoods in conducting the surveys, sharing the results, and transmitting them to the appropriate municipal agencies, many other neighborhoods applied to participate in the project. Neighborhood residents continue to participate because they have been able to document improved conditions during re-surveys of their neighborhoods.

Another key factor is size. In a city the size of Worcester, it is possible for Research Bureau staff to have regular and informal contact with the senior public officials. They are able to ask one another for assistance, and the city manager and relevant department heads have been some of ComNET’s major supporters. This kind of relationship with public officials is probably less likely in a city the size of New York or even Boston. Those cities identified as “Middle Cities” by Pioneer Institute, such as Springfield, Lowell, Brockton, Fall River, and New Bedford, are more likely to be able to establish such a program and see the most benefit.

Conclusion

As the program has matured, ComNET and the role of the Research Bureau have evolved. In what we see as a mark of the program’s success,a couple of neighborhoods have withdrawn from the program for the time being because their residents are now confident that they can get results dealing directly with the customer service center. In general, as the neighborhoods have gained experience with the surveys, they have been taking on more responsibility. Going forward, the Research Bureau expects to only to play a large role when a particular neighborhood wishes to undertake a more comprehensive survey, or when opening up a new territory, as it will be doing this summer when it conducts the first survey of Worcester’s downtown neighborhood.

ComNET-like projects have been implemented in about fifty communities and business districts across the United States, usually relying on the program and the assistance of the staff of the Fund for the City of New York. The Research Bureau would be pleased to assist in this replication effort as well.

Contact the Author:
Roberta Schaefer
Executive Director
Worcester Regional Research Bureau
319 Main Street
Worcester, MA 01608
508-799-7169
Fax 508-799-4720
rschaefer@wrrb.org
 
Resource List:
  • Worcester Regional Research Bureau website: www.wrrb.org
  • The Public Performance Measurement and Reporting Network website: http://ppmrn.rutgers.edu/Home.aspx
  • Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Standard of Living and Economic Performance Program website: http://www.sloan.org/programs/ PerformanceMeasurementandReporting.shtml
  • The Citizens and Peformance website for the monthly magazine Governing, http://www.governing.com/manage/pm/intro.htm
  • Fund for the City of New York’s Center on Municipal Government Performance website: http://www.fcny.org/portal.php/ govt/cmgp
  • Barbara Cohn Berman, Listening to the Public: Adding the Voices of the People to Government Performance Measurement and Reporting (New York: Fund for the City of New York, 2005).
  • An article on Worcester’s experience with ComNET: Jonathan Walters, “Tracking Team,” Governing.com April 1, 2006, http:// www.governing.com/manage/pm/perf0406.htm

 

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