"Maps that fight the mafia": How Italy is leading the way in collaborative mapping initiatives

The eternal city. That's Rome, in case you were wondering. Image: Getty.

In Europe today, there are many communities of developers, urban planners and other experts using open data to map their cities. But when it comes to the direct involvement of citizens and users in collaborative mapping initiatives, Italy is leading the way.

From the far north to the southernmost extremity of the Italian boot, these projects are contributing to a radical re-thinking of the use of public spaces. At the same time, they’re fostering the active participation of residents in the development of their urban neighborhoods.

The challenge faced by many of these initiatives is making collaborative mapping a tool for new types of relationships with local authorities, in order to support innovative policy process. A growing debate on the topic is also being promoted within the framework of the first National Network of Social Innovators, a part of the EU co-funded SEISMIC project.

Here are three examples of such schemes currently under way.

Naples and MappiNa

The most successful experience of collaborative mapping is based in Naples, but is ready to expand its model to other Italian cities. MappiNa is an alternative map of the city, taking its name from a play on words: in the local dialect “mappina” can mean little map or rag.

The aim of the platform is to break stereotypes on Naples and suggest new angles of view on the city, through content uploaded by a community of 400 mappers. Users can post materials geotagged photos, videos and texts in categories including treet art, sounds, events, and abandoned spaces and buildings.

A screen shot from Mappi-Na.It

This platform, which could be replicated in other cities, will be further improved by the end of this year, thanks to funds collected through a crowdfunding campaign which used Telecom Italia’s WithYouWeDe platform. The aim of the improvements is to add new sets of open data, and give users the tools to produce their own maps, which they can host and distribute through the MappiNa website.

The project will help to foster the use of open data in the cities; but it will also offer new opportunities to promote change. A wide debate among experts and mappers followed the publication of the first map of buildings owned by the city of Naples: 60,000 structures, partly unused or unoccupied, sprawled across the entire metropolitan area, whose reuse could be the starting point for a decisive process of urban regeneration.

Rome and CityHound

Conceived as a “social network for abandoned spaces”, CityHound was created by the architecture studio T-Spoon to conduct a census of the unused buildings of I District in the centre of the Eternal City. Through its participatory maps, CityHound enables contact between the owners of these buildings and groups which may put them to temporary use.

A screenshot from CityHound.

Rome’s participation in the TUTUR (“Temporary use as a tool for urban regeneration”) scheme, a part of Europe’s URBACT programme, was used as the occasion to expand CityHound’s coverage to the III District in capital’s northern suburbs. The platform contributed to the collaborative mapping of this area, highlighting unused areas in markets or other public spaces, and working in close cooperation with the residents for their regeneration.

This collaboration with the city of Rome and its districts is enabling the creation of new economy, and the reuse of abandoned school theaters, overpasses and other urban structures.

Using maps to fight the mafia

In southern Italy, collaborative maps are also helping to solve one of the problems linked to the presence of criminal organisations: what to do with the property confiscated from them.

The “Libera il bene” initiative is promoted by the Apulia region, and involves many municipalities and cities in the south eastern part of the country. The aim of the programme, which is funded by EU Structural Funds and conducted in collaboration with Libera, Italy’s most influential anti-mafia association, is to foster the reuse of buildings previously owned by mafia organisations.

The scheme merges spatial regeneration with the promotion of a sense of a community, by involving groups of citizens, often young, in its work. To date, more than 70 of the 600 seized and abandoned properties are in course of rehabilitation for social purposes. The initiative is also working closely with the national collaborative project Confiscati Bene, which is supporting local authorities and groups of citizens by improving their knowledge of the opportunities offered by the confiscated structures.

Through a wide range of maps and data set elaborated by the Spaghetti Open Data team, the initiative is showing how the collaboration among mappers, local institutions and residents can offer unexpected solutions to urban challenges – especially in the areas most affected by Italian political paralysis.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.