Challenge: Locate the unfinished housing developments as visual evidence of a recession
In July 2009, Brian Lehrer’s guest, New York State Assemblyman Hakim Jeffries, came on the show to talk about “Project Reclaim”, a move to turn unsold developments into affordable housing in his district, which covers a large portion of Brooklyn. Jeffries’s idea prompted a new crowd-source project that fell under the show’s local economic coverage along with Your Uncommon Economic Indicators. A story involving the identification of empty condos or stalled construction projects across the New York City metro area was a clear candidate for crowdsourcing.
Method: Explain the concept and invite listeners to help us pinpoint sites they suspect of not being developed due to the recession.
To begin, we plotted the targeted sites in Jeffries’s district on a new map. We chose the My Maps feature on Google because of the powerful editing and collaboration tools available. Essentially, anyone can edit a map and add their own text, photos and video in a public Google map. We wanted the most diverse media entries with the fewest obstacles–this allowed a producer to create a map quickly and edit frequently without special coding or the support of a digital department.
To follow up and expand the story, WNYC reporter Matthew Scheurman and New York Magazine contributor David Amsden talked with Brian about their reporting on rezoning and the crashing condo market in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. With the new map open for editing, Brian invited listeners to pinpoint any stalled construction or vacant condos in their neighborhoods. Listen here to their conversation:
Results: Thousands of page views, Editing Lessons learned and new Friendships Formed
The response to this map was enormous. This was clearly a story relevant to people all over the metro area, judging from the attention the map received. Two weeks after Brian’s original invitation, 40,232 views of the map and more than 70 new sites were added. (To date the map count reports over 101,000 views.)
Our new project was picked up in other local news sites. The blog Curbed announced “WNYC is also soliciting anecdotal intel on other stalled sites that might not have made the official [Department of Buildings] tally.” Later in 2009, Gotham Gazette again linked to the map, this time as a former record of halted construction that had been updated by the advocacy group, Right to the City. The story continues to be brought before lawmakers as an argument for the creation of affordable housing.
Modifying our Method: Where WNYC’s producers found difficulty was controlling the open editing process in the map. Complaints from visitors about not finding the editing tools, Google’s requirement that they create user IDs and the frequent disappearance of the maps instructions prompted us to close the public edits and create a form to collect future submissions. While the lack of immediate results dampened activity on the map, many submissions came into the station via the form. One of the first was from a listener near the fringes of WNYC’s range, in Asbury Park, NJ. Because of the form’s optional fields, she was able to provide written comments, photos and several links to articles.
The lag in development in Asbury Park is notoriously old and sometimes attributed more to corruption and politics than to the recession, but Brian Leher’s conversation with a lawyer familiar with the state’s eminent domain policies, as well as a local housing advocate, fleshed out the original mapper’s complaints about Asbury Park’s stalled development and the unfinished luxury building, The Esperanza, “still one floor of concrete and rebar” since December 2007. Listen here:
Forging New Collaborations: In late August Dr. Jack Eichenbaum, who teaches The Geography of New York City at Hunter College and founded GISMO, a mapping enthusiasts’ group, contacted WNYC’s online project editor. He expressed interest in leading a tour to canvas part of Queens to map lots and construction suspended behind the plywood. A handful of volunteers spent a Saturday afternoon talking to neighbors and reading posted permits to learn the approximate length of delay for each lot. Thanks to his work, twelve more lots were added to the map and he occasionally updates us on other places that he thinks we should examine.
Lessons learned: As producers of the Brian Lehrer Show tried to react with flexibility to the intense interest generated by the mapping project, and as they coped with the problems created by an unmanageable public tool, the need for a simple, packaged crowdsourcing mapping tool became evident. It was time to recreate the Uncommon Economic Indicators page into a single feature that would allow producers to manage large amounts of data, adapt to changes quickly and still engage visitors to participate. That is how, a year after the launch of Your Uncommon Economic Indicators, WNYC is able to provide other stations with a well-developed simple mapping tool to engage their listeners in telling important stories.