With a surge in underwater mortgages contributing to neighborhood blight, Rockford sought to enhance data collection and analysis as a cornerstone of its community development strategy
But with information spread across a half dozen systems and GIS staff inundated with mapping requests, the City’s IT Department lacked the resources to keep pace with demand for data visualization and analysis
Instead of building a tool or cobbling together existing resources, Rockford opted for the off-the-shelf BuildingBlocks application, saving weeks of staff time and delivering powerful insights to City users
A truly all-American city, Rockford, IL, was described in a 1949 issue of Life magazine as “nearly typical of the U.S. as any city can be.” Its population grew to over 150,000 in the early 2000’s, as soaring home prices in Chicago drove people 90 miles west to the more affordable Rockford metro area. But the 2008 recession hit hard, and by 2013 The Wall Street Journal labeled Rockford “the underwater mortgage capital of America” because, in nearly one-third of the area’s mortgages, the home was worth less than the money owed. Homeowners deferred maintenance, resulting in deteriorating property conditions, and the number of vacant & abandoned properties grew to over two thousand. That same year, Todd Cagnoni, AICP, took over Rockford’s Community and Economic Development Department (CEDD) with the goal of taking a new approach to blight removal.
To help shape Rockford’s strategy against blight, Cagnoni was instrumental in obtaining and leading a technical assistance grant from the Center of Community Progress (CCP), a nationally-recognized not-for-profit focused on neighborhood revitalization. The resulting report, “Laying the Foundation: Developing an Improved Approach to Problem Properties in Rockford,” identified enhanced data collection and analysis as one of its core recommendations.
While the City has a sophisticated & capable Information Technology (IT) Department led by Director Glenn Trommels, it struggled with insufficient resources to build a robust data analysis and visualization tool to address the needs outlined in the CCP report. The CEDD team spent hours each week looking across six enterprise systems to get holistic information on a single problem property. And if there was a need for more complex reporting or analysis—such as prioritizing the list of problem properties by combining data on open code violations, police & fire incidents, tax delinquency, foreclosures, and more—Database Administrator Erica Adkisson had to query multiple databases and standardize datasets across disparate systems, an onerous process that could take up to a week. Meanwhile, GIS Manager Tara DeRosa was inundated with ad hoc requests for maps and spatial analysis.
After an in-depth review of a half-dozen software products, including Rockford’s existing enterprise GIS tools, Trommels selected Tolemi’s BuildingBlocks to support the data-driven strategy defined by Cagnoni and CCP. DeRosa and Adkisson led the deployment of the application, and they started by consulting the code enforcement and community development users about which data sources to integrate from the various SQL servers and GIS applications across the City and Winnebago County.
“People were literally lining up outside my door,” DeRosa described. “And anything I give them is static. The day after I make it, it’s out of date.”
Tara DeRosa, GIS Manager
“End result: our staff have the answers they need when they need them, and it’s saving us a ton of time on the back-end because we just ‘set it and forget it.’”
The team from Tolemi then helped to identify useful fields based on their work in dozens of other municipalities across the country and collaborated with Tara and Erica to define the most effective file transfer and data integration methods to provide automated nightly updates to BuildingBlocks. “Once we had the data located and code written to harvest it,the Tolemi team took it from there and shouldered a lot of the load,” Adkisson said.
With BuildingBlocks up and running, the CEDD staff now have the information they need at their fingertips to make fast, effective decisions. “It is so much easier to see all this data in one pane of glass, to see patterns where they may not have before,” DeRosa observed. “In some ways their use of BuildingBlocks is more advanced than what we were doing in GIS. They’re using spatial tools and buffering that they never would have used before.”
Adkisson added, “BuildingBlocks allows us to add new data quickly and easily. Instead of taking a week of my time to export data, configure it, and get it in a format the staff can use, we can add a new data set to BuildingBlocks in under a day.