As the age of the Internet slowly matures, the initial thrill of limitless access to information has largely subsided. In its place, companies and individuals have been focusing more on ways for users to sift through the resources of the Internet and find what they need, with attention paid to the disparities in access between rich and poor. Too often, useful data is out there somewhere, but in a form inaccessible to the communities and individuals that need it most, especially in sprawling and fragmented urban areas like Los Angeles.
The Advanced Policy Institute (API) at UCLA, a publicly funded land grant university, started in information technology work by collecting information on community disinvestment and deterioration, measured through variables like tax delinquency records, code violations, and unpaid bills. As new technologies became available to link many kinds of local information, the API saw the potential in using these tools to help the impoverished communities they were studying.
API's Neighborhood Knowledge Partnerships (NKP) program, conceived in 1996, aims to restore the natural partnership between institutions of public higher education and their surrounding communities. In starting their project, the API team took inspiration from Chicago's Neighborhood Early Warning System (NEWS), which also assembled administrative information that reflected residential disinvestments. Ultimately, however, API's programs struck out in a new direction, with an increased focus on mapping and data collection tools.
The group's first project, Neighborhood Knowledge Los Angeles (NKLA) shifts the focus from the deficits to the assets of lower-income communities, and aims to help people find new and exciting ways to tap these capabilities. With information on predatory lenders, code violations, and other community-destroying forces, local activists are much more able to leverage resources away from negative elements, and reclaim their neighborhood.
The Living Independently in Los Angeles (LILA) project, launched in 2001, focuses on empowering the local disabled community through building a network of grassroots community knowledge about disability and accessibility issues. In creating the program, NKP brought together technology foundations, independent living centers, IT corporations, grassroots community groups, and individuals. LILA is real-time, dynamic, and participatory; disabled people themselves contribute over 90% of the information in the system.
Other projects started under the NKP banner include Healthy City, a database of resources for lower-income communities in L.A. county, and LA Lots, a website that catalogs vacant lots in Los Angeles to aid developers of all kinds, from neighborhood nonprofits to businesses. Catering to the diversity of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds in Los Angeles, both NKLA and LILA are available in English and Spanish.
One significant barrier remaining for all of NKA's programs has been the increasing privatization of public data in the state. After the passing of Proposition 13 in California, it became harder for local governments to raise funds through property taxes, so they turned to selling publicly compiled and managed real estate information to business and individual customers electronically. These governments have been hesitant to reveal any potentially marketable information to public projects like NKLA and LILA, making it harder for the API to bring all available resources together for the good of struggling communities in Los Angeles.