WASHINGTON – Whether it’s for playgrounds, sidewalks, low- income housing or emergency shelters, Marylanders will soon be able to visualize exactly where some federal money is being used in their neighborhoods.
They’ll be able to pull local maps up on the Internet and inspect for themselves whether money spent on community centers, child care, water or sewers is in their interest.
And they’ll be able to speak up electronically if it’s not.
The new technology, provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, combines computer mapping programs and Census data to give details such as income distribution, race and unemployment figures for neighborhoods where federal money is targeted.
“The maps are a much better way of showing this to people,” said Andrew Cuomo, assistant secretary at HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development. “People say, let me see where I live, then I’ll tell you if you’re doing a good job.”
He said that HUD experimented with a live “chat session” on the Internet Feb. 9, where people could use their home computers to share their opinions with others in 30 different cities. “We announced this first chat line and just invited people on,” Cuomo said.
Though scheduled for an hour, the session was so successful it ran overtime. “We had to keep it open for three hours,” Cuomo added.
A son of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, Cuomo invited the U.S. Conference of Mayors to try the new software and determine how HUD could work better with local governments and their citizens.
“There’s been tremendous interest in it,” Cuomo said.
The HUD initiative also saves a mountain of paper.
There are almost 1,000 areas across the country that receive funds directly for community development programs, Cuomo said. Ten of these are in Maryland.
“If you added it up,” Cuomo said of the old system, “it comes out to 1,000 pages per grant.”
Now these areas can plot their proposals on electronic maps instead of filling out forms. The proposals get fed into a national database that will be under public scrutiny.
“Rather than tell us what you want to do,” Cuomo added, “why don’t you show us?”
Housing planners in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties said they are already finding the new software useful in mapping out how and where they are going to spend the federal funds.
“It’s been very helpful,” said Ken Collins, a manager at the Department of Housing and Community Development in Prince George’s County.
“It’s very sophisticated mapping software that incorporates within it basic street maps,” Collins said. “It’s a tool we’re using now but we continue to explore daily the possibilities.”
HUD has developed prototype kiosks that could be installed locally in city halls or libraries, making the information accessible to the public. The kiosks were exhibited at the National Conference of Mayors and are being made available now, said Michael Zerega, a HUD spokesman.
The housing agency also offers a toll-free number, 1-800- 998-9999, and an Internet home page for citizens to participate. The home page address is http://www.hud.gov.
Thomas Minerd, division chief at the Montgomery County Department of Housing and Community Development, was optimistic about opening the mapping software to the public in the near future. “That would work pretty darn well in our libraries or other public institutions … where people could pass some time reading a computer,” he said. -30-