Lots of Opportunity
By Suzie Boss Louisville, Ky., is dotted with vacant lots and buildings that are ripe for redevelopment. The city, in fact, owns hundreds of such properties. But potential buyers can’t even start bidding on those sites if they lack basic information about what’s available. “Most cities don’t know what they own,” says Cristina Garmendia, cofounder of Opportunity Space, a Bostonbased start-up that has developed an online platform that makes data about surplus government property more open and more accessible. Through this platform, she says, cities and other public bodies “can use their real-estate assets to achieve their policy goals.” Opportunity Space, a for-profit company, grew out of a project at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Garmendia and her classmate Alex Kapur started the company last year, after winning a Public Sector Innovation Award as part of the Harvard College Innovation Challenge. They were also finalists for an Echoing Green fellowship. Ted Smith, director of economic growth and innovation for the Louisville Metro government, says that his city eagerly accepted the chance to become the pilot site for Opportunity Space. “This should be like found money for a city,” he says. When the Louisville platform launched in late 2013, it featured 469 city-owned “opportunities,” along with descriptions, photos, and contact information related to each site. All of that information had previously been “kept in a spreadsheet,” Smith notes. “It wasn’t public. It wasn’t comprehensive. And it was managed by a single person.” The open-data approach gives cities a way to organize their real-estate holdings without having to invest in expensive property audits. “We get the data from the city, translate it into our standard, and aggregate it,” Garmendia says. “That means you can see and search everything that a city knows about what it owns.” In many cases, there are gaps in a city’s existing knowledge base. But the Opportunity Space platform allows members of the public to fill in missing information. The idea of moving realestate information online matches a commitment to open data that has been a consistent theme of Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. Speaking recently at a summit of Code for America, a gathering of technologists, Fischer described his city’s “ferocity around transparency and open government.” Louisville officials, for instance, have gone so far as to share information from restaurant health inspections on Yelp. “It’s data, man,” Fischer said at the summit. “We’re just making it easy for people to use.” Helping to accelerate realestate deals isn’t the only goal of Opportunity Space. Boosting civic involvement is equally important to Garmendia. “How can we engage citizens to create the society they want to live in?” she asks. The Opportunity Space platform might spark conversations about potential sites for community gardens and art installations, for example. “We want to be a catalytic tool for those conversations,” Garmendia says. Stacey Reason, a member of the Louisville Artists Syndicate, sees Opportunity Space as a tool for building new civic partnerships. The arts “play an integral role in shaping the character and feel of the city,” she argues. “Artists are always looking for outlets to put our energy to work.” In that spirit, she suggests that the Opportunity Space platform “could serve as a meeting ground between the city and its creative people.” One arts project, still in the planning stages, would celebrate the life of heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. It’s a monumental installation by the artist Michael Kalish, it’s titled ReALIze, and the working plan is to bring it to a plot of vacant land in the Louisville neighborhood where the fighter grew up. Over time, Opportunity Space will build a library of case studies about creative property reuse. In the next phase of its operations, Opportunity Space will focus on the real-estate assets owned by several cities in Rhode Island. (That project, like the company’s current work, will be grant-supported. In the future, Opportunity Space plans to charge each city fees that will vary according to population size, number of parcels, and quality of data.) “We want to find out if we can provide value to really small cities,” Garmendia says. In the meantime, other US municipalities of varying sizes have shown an interest in adding their assets to the Opportunity Space map in the coming year.