Randy Wilkerson, director of code enforcement, and Santiago Garces say an iPad rollout enabled South Bend, Ind., to cover more ground faster.

Jan 20 2016

Cities Like South Bend, Ind., and Laredo, Texas, Tap Tablets to Eradicate Urban Blight

Inspectors use specialized software to identify properties for repair or demolition.

When South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg took office in 2012, tackling the city’s decaying housing stock was a top priority. In 2013, the city launched an ambitious initiative to inspect 1,000 abandoned and distressed homes for rehabilitation or demolition in 1,000 days.

Eight code inspectors hit the streets with Apple iPad devices and used them to enter data, take and transmit photos, issue violations and track progress of ongoing cases. By eliminating paper forms and manual data re-entry, South Bend completed the massive inspection undertaking on time in 2015, with a tally of 1,036 homes repaired or demolished.

Santiago Garces, chief innovation officer for South Bend, credits the devices for speeding neighborhood cleanup. “We created a very fast process for discovering and addressing violations, achieving almost complete error elimination, increased owner compliance and improved bill and trash collection,” he says. The project also helped to decrease crime, Garces adds.

Embracing Paperless Processes

Municipalities like South Bend have replaced paper forms with mobile devices and applications that streamline the inspection process and reduce the time and effort to beautify neighborhoods. Combining data collected in the field with other back-end information can also yield valuable insights about where to apply resources in neighborhoods.

As the code enforcement project and other mobile efforts ramped up, the IT department installed AirWatch enterprise mobile management software to manage the iPad devices used by inspectors, abatement crews and other city employees. Garces also decided to expand South Bend’s iPad deployment to support the city’s property initiative.

Garces’s IT team built its first mobile inspection app using a mobile GIS client that harnesses GPS data to pinpoint property coordinates and gather code violation data. As the effort scaled up, South Bend switched to a more customized enterprise case management system and mobile client solution.

The city’s inspection app can generate letters and invoices to owners, notify abatement crews of violations, track progress and accomplish numerous other functions. “The crew supervisor says he no longer has to take work home just to keep these efforts going,” he says.

Electronic forms also enable teams to incrementally change information gathering, according to Garces. “The information the iPads collect in the field is now much richer than what we collected with paper forms and can be analyzed with other information for new insights,” he says. “It all helps us better understand what is going on in these neighborhoods so we can direct resources more effectively.”

Using Mobile Devices for Surveys


Percentage of the total U.S. workforce that will be mobile by 2020

SOURCE: IDC, “U.S. Mobile Worker Forecast, 2015–2020,” June 2015

In Ohio, the Western Reserve Land Conservancy uses mobile devices and apps to fulfill its mission of land conservation and restoration. The group used iPad devices to inventory all 150,000 parcels in the city of Cleveland in less than six months — a rate of more than 2,000 per day.

The conservancy already had a GIS system to map wetlands, streams, soils and other environmental aspects of properties. In 2013, it tied in field worker mobile devices and apps for collecting information about property occupancy, vacancy status, structure condition and code enforcement, says Paul Boehnlein, director of GIS for the Western Reserve Land Conservancy.

Initially, the conservancy conducted an inventory of properties in Lorain, Ohio. Work expanded to five other projects, including 97,000 properties in the city of Akron and three Cleveland neighborhoods decimated by the foreclosure crisis. This set the stage for the citywide Cleveland inventory completed this year.

As with South Bend, the Conservancy moved to a cloud platform as the project grew in size and scope. “The scalability of the cloud solution was far superior to what we could achieve in-house, and let us focus on collecting information rather than managing the server side,” Boehnlein says.

The group currently sends the collected data to the Cleveland Department of Building and Housing, where it helps to fill in missing information that in the past was generated solely by random citizen complaints.

Cleveland will also analyze the data against tax delinquency data to help the county land bank ramp up the acquisition process. “Eventually, we’ll compare this data to crime, public health and property value information so we can understand the full landscape of issues in each neighborhood and acquire funding for local rehabilitation and demolition programs,” Boehnlein says.

Mobile Multitasking

For Laredo, Texas, field mobility enables multitasking and collaboration. The city deployed Dell Venue 11 Pro tablets running Windows 10, says John Porter, acting director of environmental services.

Several municipal departments handle code violations in Laredo, including community development, health, building and environmental services, and fire. Equipping inspectors with mobile devices and applications spanning all departments enables workers to report multiple types of violations. “With just a little cross-training, someone investigating a zoning violation could address the most common environmental and health violations as well, instead of having to call another department to start a whole new process,” says Porter.

The Dell tablets also can be used to alert inspectors to other reported violations while they’re out in the field. “They can update information on back-end systems while it’s fresh in their memory,” Porter says.

Above all, the tablets have made the inspectors more efficient and accountable. “Now all our inspectors have a much better handle on what’s going on in the city,” Porter says. “Thanks to this system, we’re much better at prioritizing which issues to address first and how to direct resources.”

Stephen Hill

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