The Historic Resource Survey: Community Data Collection in Action

In November 2013, the Motor City Mapping project moved forward at a dizzying pace, with the goal of identifying every blighted structure and empty lot in the city of Detroit.  Loveland Technologies was in the process of finalizing the Blexting application for the city-wide parcel survey, and the Michigan Nonprofit Association hired more than 100 community surveyors.  Meanwhile, in these early stages, Data Driven Detroit (D3) focused its surveying expertise on developing and testing the questions that would drive the survey.  During this time, D3 received a number of requests from community groups to integrate additional questions into the survey process, ranging from assessing historic relevance to estimating rehabilitation costs.  Unfortunately, with the speed of the project and the complexity of the existing survey, the Motor City Mapping team was forced to delay such modifications until future phases of the project.  However, in one of these instances, a stunning example of grass-roots organizing and collaboration between the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, Local Data, and D3 resulted in the Historic Resource Survey, one of the richest datasets that would emerge from the Motor City Mapping project.

Background for the Survey

The early weeks of Motor City Mapping focused on surveying properties located within six areas that the city of Detroit identified for disbursement of the $52 million in Hardest-Hit (HHF) funds.  These funds are required to be used for targeted demolitions in stronger-market areas, and the city faced a short timeframe in which to disburse the awarded resources.  Due to these caveats – the emphasis on demolition, and the quick turnaround required by the conditions under which the grants were awarded – some groups expressed concerns that the HHF deployment would result in demolitions of structures with considerable historic significance.  The Michigan State Historic Preservation Office received determination from the U.S. Department of Treasury that the HHF program was not eligible for preservation oversight, accentuating these reservations.

In response to these worries, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority – the state department charged with disbursing the HHF dollars – exempted designated historic districts from demolition efforts.  However, eligible but not yet designated historic districts did not receive this protection.  Concerned about the potential loss of historic structures in these areas, the Michigan Historic Preservation Network (MHPN) partnered with Preservation Detroit and the Detroit Land Bank Authority to advocate for bringing a preservation perspective to the process of identifying structures for demolition.

Bringing the Survey to Life

Though every organization involved in Motor City Mapping supported the aims of MHPN and Preservation Detroit, the initial requests to add a historic component to the survey faced the same obstacles as other issues that were brought to the team’s attention.  By this time, the survey was in full motion, and adding additional questions into the Blexting application was virtually impossible.  Not to be dissuaded, Emilie Evans from MHPN and the National Trust for Historic Preservation reached out to Data Driven Detroit to ask if there was any potential way that the Historic Resource Survey could still be completed.  In response, D3 offered up use of its Local Data license.  This provided MHPN with access to a mobile surveying application similar to the Blexting platform used by the wider Motor City Mapping survey.  D3 and MHPN collaborated further, identifying parcels for the survey based on two criteria – location in an eligible or proposed historic district, and location in one of the six designated HHF deployment areas.  Once D3 had determined the survey geographies and delivered them to Local Data, MHPN was ready to commence the Historic Resource Survey…

…from a technical standpoint, that is.  MHPN still needed surveyors to collect data on each of the nearly 18,000 properties that were located within the targeted areas.  A call for volunteers was met with a tremendous response – nearly 55 individuals from dozens of organizations throughout the city.  Offering their evenings and weekends to the project, these volunteers used Local Data to survey 17,500 properties across the City of Detroit in only two weeks.

The Results

The Historic Resource Survey answered three questions for each property, focusing on its architectural integrity, how in-keeping it was with neighborhood character, and how well its block remained intact.  These questions were then aggregated into an easily-digestible Historic Preservation Score – Very Important, Important, Less Important, or Not Historic – that identified how much of a preservation priority a particular property was for a neighborhood.  The survey data makes possible data-driven decisions about both building removal and restoration.  Funding sources tied to demolitions, such as HHF, can be focused on properties that are labeled as less important or not historic, while preservation efforts can focus on properties of greater importance – not only measured in their architectural significance, but also by their place as an anchor of some of Detroit’s most vibrant communities.

Further Materials

The full Historic Resource Survey dataset is available for download at parcel level in a variety of formats from D3’s Open Data Portal,

For more information on the activities of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and Preservation Detroit, visit the following websites:

For more information on the Local Data application used in the Historic Resource Survey, visit