Identifying the big vacant-property owners
We know there are thousands of vacant homes in Baltimore, 16,000 by some definitions and more by others. But who owns them -- besides the city -- is much less well-known.
Baltimore software developer Mike Subelsky decided to gather together public data to shed more light on the subject, and perhaps help the Baltimore Slumlord Watch blog find candidates to "feature." The list he compiled -- by scraping state and city websites for vacancy and ownership data -- includes the city (of course) as well as limited liability companies, landlords and nonprofits.
The datasets have limitations -- multiple LLCs obscuring both who owns and whether they own multiple homes, for instance -- but it's an interesting effort. Subelsky says it took a few weeks, mostly to clean up the results of the scraping.
He did a quick Q&A with me to explain the why and the what-next:
Q. What prompted you to invest the time?
A. It was one of several things proposed for my "free software project." I really care about the city and want to make it a nicer place for everyone to live and work, and I've always been involved in some type of public service, so I naturally gravitated to the idea of using my software skills for a public good.
I'm also in search of hard, interesting problems to solve with software that I could turn into a business. The only way I'm going to get good ideas is to start tackling problems. Even though this project doesn't have immediately obvious commercial applications, I learned a lot of interesting things while working on it, and it's created some new entrepreneurial opportunities.
Q. What other ways do you think residents can use city data to shine light on problems or help point to solutions?
A. I'm contemplating two ideas right now:
(1) If we can get access to lists of stolen property from the police, I bet someone could build a tool to identify the thieves trying to sell it on Craigslist or eBay. If I know a gold Rolex watch was stolen on Monday, and I see a similar watch posted to Craigslist on Tuesday, it's probably the same watch. I bet the police would love to get an email every day with leads like that.
(2) The slumlord watch blog says the city's vacant building database is not accurate. It's probably really difficult to keep the list up-to-date anyway, and the city may have a strict legal definition of "vacant" that lags behind conditions on the ground. I think we could use a few different crowdsourcing technologies to create a really up-to-date list, similar to what Baltimore Green Space did last year using volunteers with smartphones to identify all of the community gardens in Baltimore (beyond the officially documented spaces).