Multi-school projects provide software for city policy makers

Guns. The Philadelphia police want to track the ones used in crime.

Welfare reform. The city of Philadelphia wants to track its impact on services and neighborhoods and people.

These are just two of a number of joint projects between the University and the city. They have joined together to create a geographic database called the Neighborhood Information System (NIS). The NIS uses data from public records - deeds, tax information and death certificates, for instance - on every parcel of land in the city so the government can track trends and better target its services.

Led by Dennis Culhane, associate professor of social work who is known for his work tracking data on homelessness for public policy purposes - his software system is now in use in 30 cities - and Dana Tomlin, associate professor of landscape architecture and regional planning, the NIS is the basis for a number of projects that aim to improve the life of city residents.

"It allows for very fast computations of spatial arrays of information," Culhane said. Using a map to track the data geographically, the system harks back to the kind of research popularized by the "Chicago School" of sociology, that then fell out of favor. "It allows for rediscovery of a line of inquiry largely forgotten."

The data include real estate records of sales price, assessed value, market value; tax rates and arrearages; ownership; building descriptions; gas and water use; Licenses and Inspections citations; public health center information (grouped by larger areas to protect patient anonymity); and crime and social services information.

Because NIS uses land parcels as the unit rather than census tracts - "No one identifies with their census tract" - and because the data collection is ongoing, the NIS data is more accurate and useful. Census data, which is collected once every 10 years, is like a snapshot, Culhane said. "What these data provide is a sort of documentary film - continuous observations on a micro level which you can then aggregate to more meaningful geographies."

NIS also provides a way for city agencies to share their data with one another. Until now, that was impossible in many cases.

Besides the guns and the welfare reform projects, there are projects to identify and recycle abandoned houses and vacant lots before they become public nuisances; a proposed project on remediation of brownfields; a proposed project to develop youth welfare indicators using health, school performance and attendance data; a project to look at the health of a community; and a project to train city government analysts.

A project to create digital snapshots of vacant lots and buildings will probably reach completion first, and the vacant house inventory by February. A test version of the gun tracking should be in police hands by summer.

The key to using the data is a set of software tools. Each of the projects involve creating customized software extensions created by Culhane and company to analyze the data. The vacant house inventory, for example, depends on a variety of data, including water and gas termination records, owner death certificates, and property values and indebtedness - which might reveal there's no financial incentive for a family to recover the property. The goal is to identify houses that are either in danger of abandonment or already abandoned.

A City Council task force on vacancy is considering policies to expedite transfer of the vacant properties before time and weather make them vulnerable to vandalism and damage.

"Working with homelessness taught me there's a real opportunity for researchers to collaborate with policy makers, city government analysts, and the way to do that was software development," Culhane said. "Researchers need data. Analysts need software."

The projects have the support of local and state sources, including several foundations. Executive Vice President John Fry, recognizing the projects' potential for supporting the University's initiatives in West Philadelphia, has channeled money to the overall effort, which unites two schools and the faculty from a number of disciplines.

Under the auspices of two deans - Gary Hack of the Graduate School of Fine Arts and Ira Schwartz of the School of Social Work - Culhane and Tomlin are working with Eugenie Birch, the chair of city planning, and Tom Pederson, director of research and development at the GSFA cartographic modeling lab.

The interdisciplinary nature of the project goes beyond the two schools. Also involved are faculty from the schools of Arts and Sciences, Medicine and Engineering and Applied Science. Physics' Bob Hollebeek will maintain the database and demographers Irma Elo and Frank Furstenburg, with Culhane, will host seminars to teach city analysts how they can make use of the data.

The design by the Penn team, even though it is still in process, will be replicated by two other cities - Seattle and Baltimore - and partnering universities there.

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Originally published on October 1, 1998