July 22, 2007

Quality of Life Palm-Size Computer Helps Citizens Track Nuisances


AS Ulla-Britta McCarthy walked down Prescott Street in the city’s Nodine Hill neighborhood, she peered at the sidewalk where weeds had forced their way through the cracks and an empty fast-food container lay. But what bothered her more than the neglect was the potential for trouble: Buckling cement protruded up from the ground several inches, creating the perfect spot for someone to trip.

“Now this sure is a hazard,” Ms. McCarthy, 73, said to Janmeet Purewal, 18, who was walking with her, tapping into a hand-held computer. “If I wasn’t paying attention, one step and I’d be flying.”

As she electronically noted the offence, “Trip Hazard,” as well as its location, Ms. Purewal replied, “Imagine if you were trying to push a stroller.” Satisfied with their assessment, the two women continued down the street, eyes peeled for the next neighborhood transgression.

For Nodine Hill residents frustrated by everyday nuisances, like cracked sidewalks, litter and illegal dumping, the answer may lie in the palm of their hands. Neighborhood volunteers — older residents and students at Yonkers High School or, like Ms. Purewal, recent graduates — are logging these quality-of-life complaints on small P.D.A.-like devices as part of an effort called ComNet, or Computerized Neighborhood Environment Tracking.

The devices record problem spots by category and location, and a database is created so those in charge of fixing them can be notified.

The idea is to help government and citizens work together to address the kinds of issues that aren’t emergencies, but can nonetheless diminish a neighborhood’s appeal, like abandoned cars, broken traffic lights or graffiti, said Barbara J. Cohn, director of the Center on Municipal Government Performance of the National Center for Civic Innovation. The National Center for Civic Innovation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, was created in 2002 by the Fund for the City of New York. The Center on Municipal Government Performance created ComNet and provides training and assistance to municipalities across the country.

“No bells go off in a government office if a fire hydrant starts to leak,” she said. “Officials can’t be on top of everything, so this is a way for citizens to get involved and be the extra pair of eyes that are needed.”

ComNet began in 1998 and has been used in 74 communities nationwide, including several New York City neighborhoods, but Nodine Hill became the first in Westchester to begin using the devices last summer.

Start-up costs for the program, which is run by Groundwork Yonkers, a nonprofit group that aims to improve neighborhoods, was about $25,000, including training and $1,200 to $2,000 for six computers, said the group’s executive director, Rick Magder.

Complaints from last year about a neglected stairwell on Riverview Place that had become a dumping ground for drug paraphernalia resulted in the city spending $180,000 to clear the space, replace the steps and install security cameras, said David Simpson, a spokesman for Mayor Philip A. Amicone. “Anytime you commit something to data, it enables the city to act more quickly and efficiently in terms of addressing those issues,” Mr. Simpson said.

Tracking street conditions brings some inadvertent lessons. On a recent Saturday, Leon Wyka, 80, a retired police detective who has spent his life in Nodine Hill, and Maria Kathrina Torres, 18, canvassed some of the area’s steeply pitched streets. Pointing out the landmarks he remembered from better days, Mr. Wyka said that the computers were a way to effect change. “Before, you were just an isolated voice,” he said.

Ms. Torres seemed surprised to learn about the area where she and her family have lived for seven years.

“His descriptions of how this used to be beautiful, I’m just trying to imagine it,” she said glancing up from her computer. “You wouldn’t know it looking around today.”