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How computer maps will help the poor

By using high-tech tools, San Jose residents hope to gain a stronger voice in planning decisions.

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Before the end of the school year, students walked the neighborhoods block-by-block - recording their impressions of the urban landscape with digital cameras and pocket PCs. They uploaded the information onto laptop computers and then transferred the data to a server located at Health Trust, where students and planners evaluated the results.

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Following patterns established by the community mapping project, the city is now working toward making the Five Wounds - Brookwood Terrace community a better place to live. As a first step, the city is now adding new streetlights, sidewalks, and traffic signals. It also plans to add 17 acres of parkland to the area by 2008.

The effort is also changing how city officials and some of San Jose's poorest residents view their neighborhoods. Like so many profound changes from the city that calls itself the capital of Silicon Valley, technology has led the way.

San Jose is now expanding the community mapping project to include 19 underserved communities. Members of each community, not students, will gather data and help city planners and project managers decipher the results.

"Citizens must have a voice in decisions that affect their neighborhoods," says Kip Harkness, director of San Jose's Strong Neighborhoods Initiative, a city program that aims to create cleaner, safer neighborhoods. "By allowing residents to ask important questions about their neighborhoods through the community mapping project, they can provide us with compelling answers to problems that have troubled their communities for decades."

Local connections

The initiative has been working with Neighborhood Advisory Committees, which provide a forum for residents to express their opinions about community issues.

Made up of representatives from business groups, faith-based organizations, neighborhood coalitions, nonprofit groups, and schools, for example, the committees help determine how redevelopment money designated for their neighborhoods is spent.

"We are excited that we have a voice in shaping the vision for our neighborhood," says Joan Rivas Cosby, chairperson of the Five Wounds - Brookwood Terrace Neighborhood Advisory Committee. "Many of us have never been active in the community before, but the city's commitment to the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative and the community mapping project has convinced us that we have a place at the table - that City Hall is listening to what we have to say."

Redefining the community

Following the recommendations of the Five Wounds - Brookwood Terrace Neighborhood Advisory Committee, the city is encouraging shop keepers to revitalize ethnic grocery stores with help from San Jose's Office of Economic Development and combating crime by reinvigorating community watch programs in languages that members of the community understand.

"Our goal is to break the boundaries of the university by showing that mobile technology can transform neighborhoods," Professor Roldan concludes. "This project has taught us that mobility is not just about bringing technology to the community. Ultimately, it will lead to social and economic mobility for residents of the communities we serve with the applications we build."