Neighbors document problem areas
A new gadget gives volunteers a direct line to the city's complaint system.

By Jason Clayworth Register Staff Writer

Bottomless potholes, illegally dumped trash, and vacant homes turned into homeless refuges are targets of a new handheld gadget that Des Moines neighborhood activists will begin to use today. "This really helps to identify the problems in a neighborhood," said Becky Morelock, president of Des Moines Neighbors, an umbrella group for the city's neighborhood associations. "Anytime you improve the neighborhood, the property values are going to increase."

Des Moines is one of the first cities in the nation to use the system, which takes photographs and downloads detailed information about nuisances directly to the city's electronic complaint system.The Computerized Neighborhood Environment Tracking system, commonly known as "ComNET," logs complaints and allows volunteers to take photographs of problems.The virtually paperless system allows for quick communication with city workers and gives residents an opportunity to target particularly bad areas, neighborhood leaders said.

Teams of volunteers will begin to comb areas of the city today. "I see it being a great thing," said Linda Adamson, president of the Gray's Woods Neighborhood Association. "It will save the city time. A picture is worth a thousand words."

The system was developed about four years ago by a nonprofit group, Fund for the City of New York. About 20 areas in New York use the system, which prints reports for city workers. Des Moines neighbors are the first to download the information directly into the city's electronic complaint system. Worcester, Mass., and San Francisco also use the system.The Des Moines neighborhood activists "are really doing some groundbreaking work," said Barbara Cohn, vice president of the New York group. "It helps government tremendously, because it gives precise information."

Des Moines neighborhood groups have 10 of the computers, which cost about $400 each and were paid for with a private grant. The first groups that will use the system are the Gray's Woods and Indianola Hills neighborhood associations.Volunteers work in teams of at least two and are expected to take about a month to survey each neighborhood. Groups will focus on city streets and public property but also will submit information such as problems with abandoned homes and unkempt yards."We'll be looking for everything that's out there," said Indianola Hills neighborhood association board member Mark White. "You name it."

Volunteers are instructed to remain only on public property and avoid conflict with residents who might be unhappy with the group's work, said Paul Coates, director of the Office of State and Local Government Programs at Iowa State University. Coates' group has helped the city develop the programs.The system asks volunteers to prioritize the seriousness of their complaints, which will help pinpoint problems, said Debora Hobbs, a city employee who has worked with the system.

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For information about the system, go to comnet