UCLA Web Site Isolates the Roots of Urban Decay

In its final stages, urban blight is easy to spot. It proclaims itself with broken windows, decaying roofs, strewn trash and graffiti-smeared walls. But it's much tougher to recognize the earlier warning signs of deterioration: unpaid taxes and utility bills and repeated building code violations that never get fixed.

Finding these indicators is challenging, and systematically gathering information on them is even more daunting. But inspired by the belief that such knowledge can help prevent-and rehabilitate-urban neighborhoods, a University of California at Los Angeles-based group is operating Neighborhood Knowledge Los Angeles (NKLA), a World Wide Web site (nkla.sppsr.ucla.edu) that collects data from a variety of sources to provide a clear picture of the city's housing stock.

Housed on three computers at UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research, NKLA contains data from the Los Angeles City Department of Water and Power, the Housing Department, the Building and Safety Department and the Office of the County Tax Collector. Community development corporations, neighborhood activists and government officials increasingly have used the site since it debuted about two years ago, with logs showing more than 1,000 hits a month as more and more citizens learn about the system.

Sharing Information

NKLA allows Web surfers to obtain in minutes what once required running from city department to city department. Users can sit at their computers "rather than having to wait in line and have a surly person tell you about one property at a time," said Neal Richman, associate director of UCLA's Advanced Policy Institute. "I'm excited about using these technologies to share information and therefore share power. We've been able to break down all these little fiefdoms of isolated information."

Denise Fairchild, president of The Community Development Technology Center, Los Angeles, which trains people who are trying to preserve neighborhoods, said NKLA has been a powerful tool.

"I can't tell you how it blows their minds," she said. "These are people who don't typically have access to computers. NKLA provides powerful access to information they wouldn't get otherwise. They can see trends in their neighborhood, see sore spots and see how they can intervene or look into it further."

NKLA also was used by a blue-ribbon panel that was examining the city's housing conditions, which resulted in an overhaul of Los Angeles' code enforcement program. Seventy new inspectors are being hired to examine every multifamily building in the city during the next three years. In the past, inspections occurred only after a complaint, according to John Wickham, a housing and economic planning analyst for the Los Angeles Housing Department.

With changes in the inspection program, there will be a new management information system (MIS) for code enforcement. And because the NKLA team has a $200,000 contract with the city to design the MIS system with its own public information needs in mind, the Web site in the coming months is expected to benefit from much timelier updates.

Richman said the code enforcement data displayed on NKLA is updated every six months via magnetic tape and disks. In the system being designed, updates are likely to happen daily-and perhaps several times a day-by inspectors armed with pen-based computers in the field. Richman said he is hoping to make it as easy to track the status of a code violation as it is to track a Federal Express package.

In addition to providing searchable databases of tax-delinquent properties, code violations, and water and power liens, NKLA also features an easy interface for federal census data. While census information is maintained on the Census Bureau's Web site, NKLA has created a tool for looking up census tract numbers, a vital first step in making the census data meaningful. Also available are links to sites such as the Federal Register, Los Angeles requests for proposals and notices of funding availability-all helpful to people seeking funds for revitalization.

The Outsider's Advantage

NKLA was the brainchild of a former UCLA graduate student, Daniel Krouk, who was aware of a similar effort in Chicago led by the Center for Neighborhood Technologies (www.cnt.org). From his prototype, a planning group led by UCLA, the California Mutual Housing Association and the Community Development Technology Center expanded the information available on the site and sought outside funds. The initiative was supported by $70,000 in grants from the Los Angeles Housing Department and $100,000 from the U.S. Commerce Department's Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program.

The outsider's perspective of the NKLA team enabled them to negotiate effectively for access to data from a variety of city and county departments, Wickham said. "Internally, there are a lot of agencies to deal with and politics to deal with," he said. "UCLA is in a different role. UCLA's strong point is in being able to negotiate across a wide range of agencies."

UCLA's sponsorship of NKLA has been key to sustaining the site. According to its recent grant application to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, UCLA has agreed to provide additional resources, including $40,000 for acquiring databases and an "Internet 2" line to the city's new fiber network.

"The biggest resources for NKLA have been the university and the students," Richman said, citing the evolution of the project from a student thesis. "You had to have a lot of love for the project and its ideas rather than being concerned about it covering its costs."

But, he noted, "project money seems to be coming quickly now." Whereas NKLA once was viewed as an outsider to city government, city government has now bought into the project by continuing to funnel grants and contracts. And NKLA is looking to include databases from other cities in Los Angeles County-a move that is likely generate more grants and contracts.

Meanwhile, proponents see NKLA as an important tool in the effort to improve the estimated 100,000 or more of the city's housing units that are deteriorating. "In terms of the average citizen, it's an opportunity to see whether their landlord is meeting [his] obligations," Wickham said.

Mark Adams, a principal of Civitas Housing Co., which renovates dilapidated housing, calls himself a "wild enthusiast" of NKLA. He said the general manager of his building company uses NKLA constantly to scout out potential properties for rehabilitation.

Vicki White is a free-lance writer based in Inverness, Fla. She can be reached at vickiwhite@xtalwind.net.

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