NKLA: Neighborhood Improvement and Recovery is Not Just for the Experts!

by Bill Pitkin

Within planning, the computer has long been associated with images of the rational, technocratic planner who plugs data into a model that magically analyzes the information and proposes optimal solutions. Planners within a ‘progressive planning’ tradition tend to reject this use of technology, focusing instead on more social or political methods, such as advocacy, community organizing, and action research. New information technologies, however, have helped break down this dichotomy, as shown by a growing number of GIS(Geographical Information System) and Web projects geared toward affecting social change. Historically, computer systems enabled information to be tightly centralized within a cadre of technical experts; the new technologies, however, make it possible to more easily distribute information and democratize the planning process.

One example of using information technology to benefit communities is the Neighborhood Knowledge Los Angeles website project (at http://nkla.ucla.edu). Developed by faculty and students at the UCLA Department of Urban Planning, NKLA serves as a critical information source and advocacy tool for people living in and working on behalf of LA neighborhoods. NKLA provides, in both English and Spanish, access to previously difficult-to-access data – such as code complaints, building permits, and property tax delinquency. The data is in both tabular and mapping formats, and serves as an ‘early warning system’ for neighborhood disinvestment. In concert with this “techie” work, NKLA staff train community residents and organizations on using NKLA and other websites to conduct neighborhood research for strategic action. As part of this outreach program, NKLA also provides residents with the opportunity to interactively add data to the website through an asset mapping application, in which residents can upload photos and their own comments regarding properties in their neighborhood.

What NKLA Does

The experience of NKLA has helped us reflect on what it means to use information technologies such as the Web for social change. ò

• Open up space for new forms of participation. Information technologies such as the Web make it possible to increase access to information that community residents can use in evaluating property conditions, uncovering environmental risks, etc. With applications like NKLA’s interactive asset mapping, residents can present their own ‘bottom-up’ perspectives of their neighborhoods, helping residents organize around existing resources.

• Provide new roles for progressive planners. The designers of the NKLA website are planners with experience in community development and activism who have gained the necessary programming skills to develop a user-driven website. Rather than relying on computer programmers to develop systems, planners concerned with social change can take advantage of software tools to help them become involved in information system design.

• Democratize control of public data. NKLA has come face-to-face with an increasingly important policy issue of the information age: who controls public data? By putting data from public agencies on the Web – and not charging for it – NKLA has at times been seen as a threat to revenue-generation schemes of local government. Planners concerned with public access to data should be prepared to enter this debate.

• Demonstrate that content is key. Much of the current policy discussion about the Web centers around the so-called ‘digital divide’ between those who have access to the technology and those who don’t. While this is certainly important, the experience of NKLA has shown us that without appropriate content for low-income people, access is meaningless. This is confirmed in a recent report from The Children’s Partnership called “Online Content for Low-Income and Underserved Americans: The Digital Divide’s New Frontier” (available at: http://www.childrenspartnership.org).

• Teach people to think critically. We realize that NKLA is only one piece of the puzzle in affecting positive social change in Los Angeles. Using these new information technologies is certainly not the only answer. We have found that it is best to acknowledge their value, while approaching them with what Stephen Doheny-Farina in The Wired Neighborhood describes as a constructive skepticism: “What communities need are people who have some technical skills, a willingness to examine how electronic communication technologies can enhance the community, some drive, and a healthy dose of constructive skepticism. Bring doubt to every claim about the net, but be committed to moving forward.”

Bill Pitkin is a Research Associate at the Advanced Policy Institute, an applied research center at the UCLA School of Public Policy & Social Research.