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Smith and Bloom
Russell Smith is director of UNO's School of Public Administration.  Heather Bloom, project assistant with Omaha Neighborhood Scan, is completing her master's thesis in urban studies. photo by Tim Fitzgerald

Helping Neighborhoods Help Themselves

by Susan Houston Klaus

With help from a new type of survey service developed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), neighborhood associations in the Omaha area can take an objective look at areas that could use improvement.

A partnership between the UNO School of Public Administration (SPA) and the City of Omaha, Omaha Neighborhood Scan (ONS) offers a way for neighborhood residents to monitor and document local conditions.  Using Pocket PCs and digital cameras, residents collect information in areas that are important to their neighborhoods and to the city.

The service and the technology behind it were developed by Russell Smith, SPA director and associate professor.  ONS is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, SPA and the City of Omaha.  It's part of a larger idea to help the city promote interaction with the community and potentially help solve problems early on.

"This is a way to help residents proactively address neighborhood conditions and the quality of life issues that are important to them," Dr. Smith says.

Neighbors may choose to focus on areas such as crime, code violations, housing conditions, maintenance needs, or infrastructure and environmental concerns.  Volunteer surveyors – residents of their own neighborhoods – work in teams to go from house to house to interview residents or document conditions of note using a rating system.

The information is compiled using an automated form on the Pocket PC.  The device, as well as the digital camera, is returned to Dr. Smith, whose student assistants download the information into a printable format.  The results are available for residents within a few days.

During the past year, Dr. Smith and his students have piloted the program among half a dozen neighborhood groups, including the Ford Birthsite Neighborhood Association.  Jan Quinley, vice president of the organization, says the electronic format is a big step up from the previous surveys her group has tried.

"We'd developed a paper-and-pencil version about five years ago," she says, "but found it to be pretty cumbersome, and it only addressed properties that received complaints."

After a brief training period, Quinley and a few others in her neighborhood surveyed a two-block test area, including about 55 properties.  They noted conditions that could pose a code violation or a safety problem, such as broken windows, deteriorated sidewalks, peeling paint or broken porch rails.  After the first few houses, she says, the group found the process easy and quickly developed a routine of entering the information into the Pocket PC.

"The survey is something we're definitely considering using in the whole neighborhood," she says.  "It offers high value to our association because it provides consistency.  Handling the process this way also eliminates the ‘neighbor turning in a neighbor' problem, because you're looking at all properties, not just one specific property."

Quinley also says she hopes by identifying potential problem areas in this manner that the association can work with homeowners to resolve issues before they need to be turned over to the city.

That's also the hope of Kevin Denker, chief code inspector for the City of Omaha.  Fixing problems at the neighborhood level not only eases the caseload for city inspectors, but also encourages teamwork among residents.

"This is a way to give power back to the residents of our neighborhoods," he says.  "I think many neighborhoods will be very receptive to it."

Susan Houston Klaus is a contributor to UNO's annual Omaha World-Herald insert.  She can be reached at shoustonklaus@hotmail.com.

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