Empowering people, and seeing something differently by mapping abandoned spaces

derelict abandoned buildings in detroit urban decay community empowerment

Credit: Luca and Vita : derelict abandoned buildings in detroit urban decay community empowerment

Creative commons images of abandoned houses in USA: Luca and Vita

Vacant buildings are a growing problem in many areas that have been hit hard by the economic downturn. Not only do these empty spaces look forbidding and gloomy, their presence can actually attract crime and vandalism, and kick off a spiral of decline which drives down house values in the neighbourhood, and is hard to break out of. I came across a neat project that is running in Louisville, Kentucky which is aiming to use these vacant spaces a catalyst for change instead of allowing their empty presence to begin causing more problems.

They are doing this in a low-tech but effective way – primarily through community conversations out on ‘front porches’ and using this up to date local knowledge to make more accurate maps of vacant lots than local government does. I’m really interested in two aspects of this:

1) this idea that local people can create better quality data than local government >Question: Where else is this true and how can it apply in other contexts? (Think Kaizen service improvement/Nissan but at the street level in municipalites of all kinds)

2) making this information visible and visual has empowered people to see potential and opportunities where before they only saw problems. Question: >what other ‘visualisations’ can lead to positive empowerment and action?

The very interesting Kibera project which I’ve mentioned before went a step further than Kentucky with its mapping work, in that it actually worked with local people to do GPS tagging and make new local information visible and shareable using an online map. this in turn enabled people to find opportunities for improvement within that shareable, visual resource, much like the Kentucky project and others.

Clear and visually appealing maps combined with GPS and community conversations could offer much more value and opportunity to do the following things:

  1. generate new possibilities, where before people felt weighed down by problems
  2. build local resilience by strengthening social networks/ increasing social capital
  3. create high quality, transparent evidence for change campaigns
  4. help maintain local economic value systems (see @WillPerrin on this in Guardian , though I think it could go further than this.)

We are now at a time when a significant enough number of people could* be potential contributors and analysts of this information, developing new possibilities and insights where before we just saw problems.

Please send me more information on any work you’re doing that crosses over with this. I’m really interested to hear about variations in approach, and also whether you think an online interactive platform PLUS a  lower level of offline work would be even more effective than the intensive offline work alone.

 *Am I right? Perhaps true of some communities more than others, but are those the ones who would benefit most?

 (Thanks to @fastcompany for highlighting Louisville story. )



  1. Alice – thanks for pointing this project out. Lots of interesting work being done that bring together aspects of crowdsourcing, asset mapping and community engagement and it is an area ripe with possibility. I dare say that you are aware of these but in the interest of sharing a few examples of many I offer these:

    Donnie Maclurcan has some interesting ideas and work on asset mapping


    and the US Millenial Mayors group also had a series of mapping projects

    The detroit subway green map is an interesting project and Don Tapscott is much involved with this type of idea through the open cities project

    The Edinburgh Cycle Map the Inner Tube draws a good deal on crowdsourced input as well http://www.thebikestation.org.uk/innertube-map/

  2. This is a really fascinating project! Thanks for bringing our attention to it. From our end, my team and I, based in the Western Balkans and working as the South East and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SEESAC), are prototyping a ushahidi based platform with the aim of mapping the gun culture in Serbia. We are currently in the development phase and hope to be live in about 2 weeks. The basic idea is for us to gain a different angle and understand on the attitude towards weapons possession and use than is usually available. The platform will allow users to both report instances of gun sightings in public places (bear in mind that gun laws are much more restrictive in Europe than in the US) as well as to give their views on weapons and weapon possession, hopefully enabling us to get a better idea of the extent of attachment to weapons (which is usually assumed to be strong).

    So,until the platform become live, you can follow our progress on:

  3. A very interesting idea! I remember when in 2004 we just started out project msdp.undp.org.ua in the municipalities of Ukraine, we also asked the local communities to map the buildings with problems at the local level where they would like to improve somthing. There were numerous suggestions from the organised citizens, and I imagine if we could use the online platform for this purpose, we could have found many more interesting projects and ideas, and the process could have been even more transparent and participatory.

    This kind of activity – be it online or not – gives a chance of making miracles by empowering people. For example, in one of the cities the community has repaired the abandoned house in the centre of the city and has turned it into the Rehabilitation Centre for the Yong People with Special Needs which is well-known in the Western Ukraine today.

    Good luck with your project; it’s a great one!

    • @Olena Ursu – interesting to hear your own experiences in a different part of the world. I was wondering if you are planning any more mapping in the future if you felt it was somthing that helped people to see the hidden potential in their community? Thanks for your comment!

    • Thank you Tapan – really very interesting to get this info as I havent come across these write-ups before. Please do keep me updated on the new version. Fascinating stuff – has big implications for how ppl might design online mapping platforms for empowerment.

      @izverzhanovski – also good to hear more work on the way from you – be good also to follow updates.

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