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Can Community Development Solve the Municipal Budget Crisis?

Oakland, Calif., like many cities, is beginning an annual or biennial budget process and coming to terms with the stark realities of structural problems with its municipal budget. An overwhelming […]

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Oakland, Calif., like many cities, is beginning an annual or biennial budget process and coming to terms with the stark realities of structural problems with its municipal budget.

An overwhelming percentage of the budget each year is allocated to the police and fire departments, and to pension obligations. Meanwhile, funding is cut for services that would equip Oakland to proactively attract business, plan for development, support quality education programming, and provide other services that are a key means for cities to grow the budget “pie.”

This is not to suggest that the police and fire departments don’t play a critical role in ensuring that the city is a safe location for businesses (which generate sales and property taxes) and for residents (who work in said businesses and generate property taxes); they do. But without growing the budget, the stark realities of having to cut services are not going to go away.

Without trying to overgeneralize, you could put teachers, libraries, human services, and community economic development in the “proactive” category, and fire and police services in the “protective” category. The challenge is to balance these “proactive” and “protective” strategies within a limited (because of Proposition 13) property tax revenue environment like California, particularly in cities other than San Francisco and Los Angeles, which have other viable sources of local revenue, like a hotel tax.

What if we could find more ways to combine “proactive” and “protective” services?
Can we reduce crime while also increasing the agency, or sense of control or self-determination over one’s conditions, of residents and community members in a neighborhood or on a block? Self-determination is increasingly understood as a social determinant of health, though long understood by community organizers as a key factor in strong and resilient communities. Community organizers have also long understood that sustained community improvements happen when people work together.

Technology is enabling people to work together in new ways. Take for instance, the telephone. Because cellular phone networks are nearly ubiquitous and telephones easy to use, the telephone is form of appropriate technology with overlooked potential for community development. 

For example, a telephone-based system that enables neighborhood block watch members to call upon “safety in numbers” could be used as a deterrent to nonviolent crime and as a means of addressing quality-of-life issues. By dialing something like an “811” number, residents could be quickly and easily connected to their neighbors who are in the vicinity during moments of need, such as when spotting someone stealing a bike or spraying graffiti. The purpose is to enable empowering and collective, yet safe, actions, like everyone in the vicinity turning on their porch lights, sounding their car alarms, calling 911, or other non-confrontational yet visible deterrents to crime.

Mobile phones and specifically, Asterix Private Branch Exchange, MySQL database, and Drupal open source software can be used together to create a real-time, distributed network for information sharing and resource utilization. To create this “proactive” and “protective” 811 service, this suite of software could be customized, along with mobile phone geolocation information, to provide near-instant, synchronous communication between an individual and members of his or her crime or block watch group who are in the vicinity at the moment of the call.

Until recently, most neighborhood block watch and crime watch groups utilized asynchronous communication tools such as email listservs, websites, or even manual phone trees. The synchronizing of the identification of a potential crime in progress with the collective response is an essential improvement offered by this idea of a “Dial 811 for Neighborhood Safety Network” and enabled by, what is essentially, telephones.

The network could be developed with a back-end, web-based user interface to enable custom deployment of the system according to the specific needs of each crime or block watch group. For instance, the system could provide a choice of either voice call-to-voice message, voice call-to-text message, or a one-to-many voice call-to-voice call capabilities. The system could be designed to enable the kinds of real-time, real-world responses and patterns of response that the crime or block watch group agrees to ahead of time, offline.

The deployment of a system like this to existing crime or block watch groups would augment and even strengthen their existing efforts; the deployment of the system across a city could catalyze the creation of additional crime or block watch groups where none previously existed. Moreover, one of the fundamental ways that this 811 network could improve public safety is by creating another avenue for residents to feel like they have control, or a level of “agency” over what happens in their own neighborhood.

Appropriate technology ideas like this should be and can be part of the approach that community development corporations use to achieve their missions in their communities. One upcoming opportunity to develop and test ideas like this is this year’s Knight Community Information Challenge, which is accepting proposals between May 1 and June 1:

The Knight Community Information Challenge helps community and place-based foundations have an impact on issues they care about by funding news and information projects. Launched as traditional media models began to falter, the challenge encourages local foundations to step in and take a leadership role in ensuring that residents are informed about and engaged in issues important to them.


In 2013, the challenge will provide up to $50,000 in seed funding as a way to test new ideas. While the challenge is an open call for all kinds of ideas, preference will be given to Open Government projects, an area in which we see great promise.

I’m excited by what ideas might emerge from community development practitioners that combine “proactive” and “protective” strategies into one solution for making an improvement in their neighborhood or community.

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