UA, City Partner to Create Automated Blight-Detection Project
The University of Alabama is teaming up with the City of Tuscaloosa to target and improve areas of the city that have been forgotten and neglected. This partnership seeks to beautify every corner of the Druid City while ensuring that all areas can remain useful to businesses and residents.
LegalMatch.com defines a blighted property as land that is in a "dilapidated, unsafe and unsightly condition." While each state has its own criteria for what is considered a blighted property, here are a few widely-accepted areas of consideration:
- The property is uninhabitable;
- The property is unsafe;
- The property has been abandoned for a specified time period (usually at least 1 year); and
- The property presents an imminent danger to other people or property.
According to a Wednesday press release, the city will be using technology to monitor areas of Tuscaloosa and remotely report its findings, thus reducing time, expenses and effort normally spent by employees who have to facilitate the inspections. Not only will this allow more areas of the city to be covered, but it will also keep those employees safe, as inspections of blighted areas can lead to potential danger while on-site.
"This partnership to create an innovative solution for a real-world challenge shows how public and private organizations can leverage the talent at The University of Alabama to benefit our local community,” Dr. Russell J. Mumper, UA vice president for research and economic development, said in the release.
The technology will work similarly to Google Maps, using cameras that are mounted onto city vehicles that regularly drive around town. The city is currently targeting garbage trucks for the task, as they patrol all city streets every day and can provide progress each week while completing their normal routes. These feeds will send information to a computer that is "trained to spot blighted properties and nuisances," then offer an assessment and suggested remedy for the property.
The automation will lift responsibilities from current city staff, allowing for a more contactless and less dangerous method of assessing potentially blighted areas. An employee can now spend their time directly communicating with residents who need to take care of the blighted areas that the trucks identify. They can also provide community assistance to those who might need it, including heeding the aid of local service organizations who might be able to help mitigate and resolve certain issues.
“The City of Tuscaloosa’s standard of excellence is to be the most innovative and effectively managed city in the United States,” Mayor Walt Maddox said. “This innovative technology is a perfect example of how our partnership with The University of Alabama allows us to be more data-driven and effective. I’m proud of the work this team has done so far, and excited to see this technology implemented in our community.”
The machine in question was trained successfully by the University and the city, who have now applied for a patent. Once this project gets fully off the ground, UA and the city will seek to expand its functionality beyond Tuscaloosa.
“This started in Tuscaloosa, but it can expand and scale to other communities,” Brendan Moore said. “This partnership with the University allows us to work out any issues with the system before it is implemented.”
This project was made possible by several inventors, including Moore, who is the executive director of urban development for the City of Tuscaloosa, and Dr. Erik Johnson, an assistant professor of economics in the Culverhouse College of Business at UA. Johnson is responsible for the brains behind the machine, as he gathered examples of blighted properties and code violations, then trained the AI software to identify and diagnose those areas appropriately using a scoring system.
“This system helps to prevent neighborhood decline in an affordable way using a unique method to collect and analyze data on blighted properties,” Johnson said. “The ability of the model to determine exactly what part of the property is driving the blight score can help inform property owners and lead to low-cost interventions.”
The inspiration behind the project comes from the people of Tuscaloosa themselves. As complaints regarding overgrown grass, abandoned vehicles, litter, illegal parking and appliances or furniture left outside have flooded city communications for quite some time, municipal leaders knew a solution lies among the University's brightest.
“Efforts to address blight are not new or distinct to Tuscaloosa,” Moore said. “But, it is a constant problem that is difficult to appropriately staff and address. This technology allows us to create early, equitable interventions that can enhance communities, prevent neighborhood decline, and connect underserved populations to social services to generate long-lasting change.”
The project is still currently in its pilot phase. Researchers plan to keep testing the AI software as the project goes on, hopefully making tweaks that will allow the service to expand to other cities quicker.
“We are very excited about this unique partnership and the progress made to push this technology to become a tool that can be used by cities and local governments to improve quality of life,” Dan Blakley, associate vice president for economic and business engagement, said. “The ingenuity of our faculty extends beyond campus while it enriches the University’s mission of teaching, research and service.”
For more information on this project, visit the city's website here.
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