Philly inspectors get ‘new eyes’ on vacant, potentially unsafe buildings

     (Jared Brey/PlanPhilly)

    (Jared Brey/PlanPhilly)

    Philadelphia has a new tool that could help the city more quickly identify potentially vacant and unsafe properties.

    The tool brings together aerial images, street views, past property code violations, even data from heat-sensing technology — and combines that information with the power of geographic information systems to pinpoint troubled buildings.

    Rebecca Swanson, who leads policy and legislative affairs at Philadelphia Department of Licenses & Inspections, said the new technology gives priority to certain attributes that would move a property to the head of the line for inspection and possible demolition.

    “Is the property on a corner, is it near a playground or a school, is it near a bus stop — all those that say, if there was something that were to structurally happen to this property, would pose a threat to the public,” Swanson said.

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    The tool gives “new eyes” to inspectors, she said.

    “Our inspectors can’t see if there’s a hole in a roof of a property, or if there’s a collapse in the back of property, where there is no alley, so we can’t get around to the back. Those are things that we could never see during our inspections, so it gives us an additional level of information,” Swanson said.

    The tool is still being tested.

    “We’re in a phase of verifying it, making sure it’s useful, rather than saying here are concrete results now go do investigations around this,” said Mark Wheeler, Philadelphia’s chief geographic information officer, Mark Wheeler.

    He says eventually the tool could become sophisticated enough to pinpoint at-risk properties before there’s a problem.

    “Typically that’s how these things work, you get calls on 311, or directly to the office about these issues, but this may help them go out and identify those properties before they start becoming a blighting influence,” Wheeler said.

    After locating owners who are struggling to maintain a building, the city might be able to connect residents with community resources to prevent a building from being abandoned.

    “That’s where I see this going,” Wheeler said.

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