Using #CivicTech to help with fires in Vacant and Abandoned Properties

As part of our participation in the Living Cities’ Accelerator program, the Office of Performance Improvement and Innovation (OPI2) brought together a cross-functional team that used a data-driven approach to develop a plan to deliver improved services to a challenged portion of our community. The team consisted of members from the Louisville Fire Department (LFD), the department of Community Services (CS), and OPI2. During data discovery, the team learned that a lot of fires occur in homes also served by CS in two of Louisville’s lowest income neighborhoods. To respond to this revelation, they developed a plan to work together to target at-risk households with the aim of preventing fires before they happen with fire education and free smoke detectors (To learn more, read this).

Image for post
Image for post
Fires in Vacant and Abandoned Properties in District 1 & 2 from ’12 to ’15 (Credit: Jess Brown)

Analysis also revealed a much higher proportion of fires in Vacant and Abandoned Properties (VAP) in the more impoverished neighborhoods of Louisville. Further analysis revealed that these VAPs were often located near occupied structures since these were older parts of the community in which houses were historically built closer in proximity. The risk then of a fire in a vacant structure is also a risk to the nearby neighbors especially since fires in vacant structures often become more involved before anyone notices. Using LFD data, we found that 125 of the 459 fires in LFD District 1 from 2012 to 2015 involved a vacant property. More alarming, we found that of the 26 of the 59 (44%) “Involved” fires (2 or more structures) in District 1 started in vacant properties and then spread to 38 other properties. Of those 38 properties, 24 of the buildings were classified as being in “regular use” — meaning people were living in them.

Image for post
Image for post

With this information, we asked the questions:

  • How can we know if an empty structure without electricity is on-fire?
  • Knowing wireless smoke detection systems require electricity and expensive telemetry, can an ultra-low cost, battery operated smoke detector be created?

To help answer these questions, we reached out to LVL1, a local maker-space, to organize a civic hackathon around creating a device for detecting fires in Vacant and Abandoned Properties. LVL1 had the space, and, most importantly, the right network to bring people into the fold for the challenge. LVL1 brought together the supplies, advertising, and people for a successful competition that included four entries.

The winning entry came from three local makers that built a device that would listen for the alarm sound of a standard issue smoke detector and then send a signal to the appropriate entity via a 3G device. In addition, they built a front and back end web-interface that can monitor the status, location, and presence of a fire for thousands of their hacked devices. This kind of hacked together solution when produce in quantity would cost less than $50 per structure installed and last more than a year. Their product and plans were interesting enough that we are currently in a second phase with them to build some prototypes for a potential field test.

Image for post
Image for post
The winning group from LVL1 with the Holy Smokes hackathon judges

Coming out of the hackathon, we hadn’t completely solved the problem we set out to tackle, but we got a lot closer and learned some important lessons about working with the civic tech community. Most importantly, we learned how to activate the Civic Tech community for public challenges. Below is a summary of the key takeaways from this work:

  • Identify a challenge

Pick a challenge that allows your government to do “more with less” and/or needs a fresh perspective. Think about the community challenge first and then try to find a technology to apply. Not the other way around.

  • Find a partner

As a government, you probably don’t have the people or network to host a successful hackathon. Tap into your local tech community to help you.

  • Bring resources to the table

Provide money to your partner for hosting, buying the necessary tech equipment, and promoting the event. It doesn’t need to be a lot, but it needs to make it cash flow positive for them.

Give the “hackers” access to the experts. We had a Major from the fire department, an IT expert from the Emergency Services department, and a fire protection company representative all participate as advisors and judges in the competition. It provided depth and understanding to the challenge that would have not been possible without them.

  • Follow-up

If someone builds a viable product, continue your work with them. We have continued our work with our winners, and our judges are continuing to provide them support as are developing a prototype for a potential field deployment.

If you have any follow-up questions, please reach out to Ed Blayney via email (edward.blayney@louisvilleky.gov) or on Twitter (@edblayney)

Ed Blayney, Innovation Project Manager, Louisville Metro

Improve and Innovate — Louisville Metro

(Archived) The official publication for Louisville Metro…

Louisville Metro CIT

Written by

Account for Louisville Metro Government's Office of Civic Innovation and Technology. Louisville, KY

Improve and Innovate — Louisville Metro

(Archived) The official publication for Louisville Metro Government’s Office of Performance Improvement and Innovation in Louisville, KY

Louisville Metro CIT

Written by

Account for Louisville Metro Government's Office of Civic Innovation and Technology. Louisville, KY

Improve and Innovate — Louisville Metro

(Archived) The official publication for Louisville Metro Government’s Office of Performance Improvement and Innovation in Louisville, KY

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store