Using #CivicTech to Stop Fires in Vacant Properties

Using #CivicTech to Stop Fires in Vacant Properties

The Louisville City Accelerator team reflects on a hackathon that created a low-cost wireless smoke detector.

As part of our participation in the Living Cities’ Accelerator program, the Louisville 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.

A map depicting fires at vacant and abandoned properties in Louisville District 1 & 2 from 2012 to 2015


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 City 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 (with 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.

LFD District 1 - Fires in Vacant Properties graphic

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 produced 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.

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 about the initiative, please reach out to Ed Blayney via email (edward.blayney@louisvilleky.gov) or on Twitter (@edblayney)

Facebook
Twitter
LinkedIn
Email

Latest Articles

Living Cities Selected to the ImpactAssets 50 for 11th Year in a Row

Living Cities’ Capital for the New Majority team is thrilled to announce that Living Cities and the Catalyst Family of Funds have been selected to the ImpactAssets 50 (IA 50) for the eleventh consecutive year and named as an Emeritus Impact Manager for the second time. “Now in its eleventh year, the ImpactAssets 50™ is the most recognized free database of …

Founders First’s Innovative Financing Supports Entrepreneurs of Color

Kim Folsom knows what it means to be a Black woman entrepreneur. Even after founding and running seven successful businesses, she still feels “like a square peg in a round hole,” she says. Yet Folsom is representative of what it will take to use capital in innovative and transformative ways to create broader systems change. Her latest venture, Founders First, …

Pulse Checking Progress Toward Operationalizing REI: Arts, Culture & Healing

In 2017, we released an internal learning report titled  “What Does it Take to Embed a Racial Equity & Inclusion Lens?” that captures themes from internal interviews, a field scan, and learnings from our grantmaking and investments in cities across the country. There were twelve themes we uncovered in our scan of practices being used by organizations to operationalize racial …

Pulse Checking Progress Toward Operationalizing REI: Shifting Systems Of Power

In 2017, we released an internal learning report titled  “What Does it Take to Embed a Racial Equity & Inclusion Lens?” that captures themes from internal interviews, a field scan, and learnings from our grantmaking and investments in cities across the country. There were twelve themes we uncovered in our scan of practices being used by organizations to operationalize racial equity.These …

Get Updates

We want to stay in touch with you! Sign up for our email list to receive updates on the progress we’re making with our network of partners, as well as helpful resources and blog posts.

Name