As the interwoven US crises of homelessness, evictions, displacement, and housing instability reach catastrophic levels, students, scholars, practitioners, and activists are joining the call of housing justice for all. In this article, we reflect on the work of Mapping Action Collective (MAC), a small nonprofit organization based in Portland, Oregon, that over the past four years has leveraged mapping and data to support housing-justice organizing. MAC’s work includes curating and producing relevant nontraditional or hard-to-acquire datasets owned by and in support of community-based groups; developing decision-support software consisting of an interactive map; producing spatial analyses that support campaign work; and organizing educational workshops and events focused on applied critical methods and data literacy.
MAC formed out of a student club in Portland State University’s geography department, where several members became frustrated with the dominant paradigm of academic geographic information systems (GIS), which often fancies itself value-free, apolitical, or neutral, regardless of outputs or products that suggest otherwise. While critical perspectives have emerged in the domain of GIS since the 1990s, many of those criticisms are rarely considered in the standard quantitative GIS course curriculum. Few spaces are available for students to engage critically with their newfound data and mapping skills. The 2017 Resistance GIS (RGIS) conference provided a space to discuss and learn from other like-minded scholars, students, and organizers. Building on the work of critical geographers around the globe, at RGIS we asked ourselves if there was room for subversion of the status quo in GIS: can mapping and data be used to dismantle systems of oppression, rather than reinforce them?
Asset mapping and spatial analysis supporting Portland’s unhoused community
Shortly after the conference, our small student group grew into MAC and began to apply that question to our studies and work in Portland. Through a small grant from Second Nature, we focused our efforts on the exploding crisis of homelessness in our community. Grounding our work in non-extractive collaboration, we began building a relationship with Street Roots, a local nonprofit organization that, in addition to advocacy work, publishes a weekly alternative newspaper sold by people experiencing homelessness to earn an income. One of Street Roots’ main assets to the people it serves is the Rose City Resource (RCR), a comprehensive list of resources and services such as food boxes, bathrooms, needle exchanges, shelters, and counseling and recovery services. No other organization in the area curates such an important dataset for those experiencing homelessness, and this one could only be accessed in a printed three-by-three-inch (7.6 × 7.6 cm) paper booklet, and was updated only twice yearly.
While honoring the value of this paper booklet as a low-barrier, nontechnical way of sharing resources, we wondered if broadening its reach via mobile phone and web, or structuring its format for wider dissemination, would benefit Street Roots and the community it serves. Simultaneously, we reflected on the inherent problem of our outsider thinking and wanted to avoid preaching technology as savior. We learned more about the work Street Roots was doing, joined their events, and built relationships with Street Roots organizers and staff to learn what they needed to do their work. As it turned out, our thinking and Street Roots’ vision aligned—increasing the reach of the RCR was a necessary endeavor.
In late 2018, MAC and Street Roots staff began working together to navigate web development, data management, and data communication (the practice of informing, educating, and raising awareness of data-related topics), to create a tool that was accurate, accessible, and easy for Street Roots staff and volunteers to use and update. Most importantly, MAC wanted the tool to be useful to the community that Street Roots serves. To get feedback on the usability of the tool, MAC members stopped by the Street Roots HQ to test it with paper vendors, folks who dropped in to get coffee or use the restroom, and Street Roots volunteers. MAC integrated this feedback into the development of the tool. The end result was the Rose City Resource Online, a web application and data-transformation pipeline that was collaboratively created with the community it was intended to serve—designed to be easy to use, and functional for any member of the community to use to get up-to-date information about resources and services. The tool was officially launched at the onset of the Covid‑19 pandemic.
We also joined activists working to end the overpolicing and criminalization of people experiencing extreme poverty and homelessness on the streets of Portland. This criminalization occurs through excessive policing within “enhanced service districts” (ESDs). ESDs, similar to business improvement districts (BIDs), are zones where businesses and property owners pay an extra fee collected as a tax to pay for extra security and maintenance. Proponents of ESDs claim they facilitate urban beautification and keep neighborhoods safe, but overlook the reality that this process of so-called revitalization amounts to coercive exclusion of vulnerable people. Clean & Safe, Portland’s largest ESD in downtown, pays for armed and unarmed private security, and supervises six Portland Police officers who solely patrol in their district. In August 2020, an award-winning audit of ESDs revealed the City provides almost no oversight of the activities of these districts, even as they have large budgets and authority over public space. This year, Portland city commissioners will vote on whether to renew Clean & Safe’s 10‑year contract. Organizers and community members are preparing to oppose the contract, especially given recent scrutiny of the district and its managing organization, Portland Business Alliance.
West Coast–based activists from Right 2 Survive, Sisters of the Road, and the Western Regional Advocacy Project asked us to analyze and map police arrest data to strengthen their argument against ESDs. A report from the city auditor that incorporated arrest data from 2017 to 2018 had already concluded that over half of all arrests made by the Portland Police Bureau were of the unhoused. Building on that fact, our research found that the citywide average of arrests for unhoused individuals was 6.1 per square mile, but within the bounds of ESDs that number was 137.7. And while correlation is not causation, it is hard to ignore the magnitude in difference between these numbers.
Data on police harassment and arrest of the unhoused community are difficult to obtain and understand. Through our work with the anti-ESD team, MAC members have learned how to navigate the complicated system of roadblocks that keep this data from the public, and use the data to support the argument against policing homelessness.
Collaboratively developed tools for fighting displacement and speculation
We have also collaborated with organizations we consider leaders in the intersecting space of data activism and housing justice. In the summer of 2019, we joined the efforts of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP) to develop a tool to facilitate landlord and building research in San Francisco (and soon Oakland). For years, tenant unions and organizers have scrutinized corporate-ownership documents, property records, assessor data, and eviction data to unmask speculators, serial evictors, greedy landlords, and their entangled networks of limited-liability companies (LLCs) and shell companies. Investment companies purchase properties using different LLCs for the purpose of anonymity and liability reduction. The corporate web guarding landlords can make ownership and property research challenging and slow.
At the commencement of the project, AEMP contributors in San Francisco garnered feedback from their partners at the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition and facilitated workshops with local tenant groups to assess their research needs and questions in fighting displacement. Shortly thereafter, MAC joined AEMP by assisting in the prototyping process, and by providing general support, design capacity, code contributions, and cloud infrastructure for hosting the project. The result is Evictorbook (in development), a web-based tool that simplifies organizer and tenant research by enabling a user to type an address, landlord, or neighborhood into a search bar to reveal a profile of a building’s eviction history, its owner, and the corporate network to which it belongs. The ability to surface this data to the user is the result of a custom data-processing pipeline that links and stores publicly available assessor, eviction, property, and corporate-ownership data in a regularly updated graph database. A public launch of Evictorbook is expected in the coming months.
Similar collaborative work has evolved through a partnership with the Urban Praxis Workshop (UPX) to redevelop Property Praxis, a research tool focused on speculative and bulk property ownership in the city of Detroit. Every year since 2015, members of UPX have curated a dataset that incorporates assessor data that is augmented with tax-foreclosure data and corporate filings to illuminate the LLCs and individuals that own more than 10 properties in the city. The intention of Property Praxis is to offer a more holistic understanding for organizers and community members of how speculative property ownership impacts Detroit neighborhoods. In late 2019, UPX asked MAC to build upon their previous work by modernizing the Property Praxis user interface and automating their data-curation process. The new version is currently in development and will be launched later this year.
Activist work can be strengthened by research and data, but only if this is done in a way that is not extractive and based on community need (voiced by the community). Four years of experience working with MAC has taught us that grounding our work in the needs of the communities and movements we support is crucial to doing justice-oriented work. This can only happen by building successful, trusting, and long-lasting partnerships. By showing up and participating in community events and never moving forward on project work without meaningful discourse and consideration of community goals, we work towards dismantling the top-down legacy of data work. Even after several years of doing this work, we still have lessons to learn from our community partners on trust-building and accountability.
Part of our development as an organization over the last few years has been the choice to organize horizontally, make decisions through consensus, and avoid toxic tech culture in our own spaces. Such intentionality promotes healthy working environments and reflects the values at the core of our organization in our day-to-day operations. Organizing in this way is by no means simple, efficient, or profitable. It takes long conversations, trust-building among members, and solid conflict-resolution mechanisms to operate without hierarchy. Despite the extra time and mental and emotional labor that it can require, our group feels strongly that it is worth it.
While we try to hold these aspirational goals, we are also aware of our own complicity in problematic systems in the fields of research and data analysis. Recognizing and dismantling our own internalized norms of white supremacy, sexism, classism, and colonist behavior is work that is ongoing. We are a work in progress. We continue to be inspired and led by the work of our partners and we look forward to many more years of collaborative work.