Bronzeville may get its boost from ‘FarmVille’ technology

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SHARE Bronzeville may get its boost from ‘FarmVille’ technology

Can a mobile app cure the seemingly intractable problem of residents abandoning their local mom-and-pop retailers to shop elsewhere?

The Wicker Park-based Center for Neighborhood Technology, which has grappled with sustainable development solutions in Chicago for 35 years, is betting on it.

The center hosted an apps hackathon competition last month won by Build It! Bronzeville, a free mobile app designed to reward residents for shopping locally by giving them “points” when they scan receipts into their mobile devices.

Shoppers can use points to buy virtual goods, much like players do in “FarmVille” and “CityVille,” and to build up a “virtual” hoped-for vision of Bronzeville with sought-after retailers such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, says Ronnie Matthew Harris. He’s a community organizer and third-generation Bronzeville resident who proposed the idea for the app to help fight what he calls retail “leakage.”

The leakage — Bronzeville residents going outside of the neighborhood to spend their money — amounts to $151 million a year, according to a report by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

A cruel twist to Bronzeville’s dilemma is that its neighborhood appears to have lost 14,000 people in the 10 years between 2000 and 2010, primarily because of Chicago Housing Authority project teardowns.

Yet the neighborhood is attracting an increasing number of upwardly mobile, young professionals, says Harris, who is one of what he calls the “returners” who moved away from Bronzeville only to return to help rebuild it.

“Ultimately, the mobile app game seeks to extract data that will be a source to articulate spending power in Bronzeville,” he says.

Harris worked with game designer Joshua Engel of Logan Square to make the game “fun” so that no one has to input data or do other drudge work. Engel’s using a free 3-D game engine from Unity Technologies for the prototype.

“If this app ultimately reduces the time people spend traveling back and forth, and businesses become more readily available (in Bronzeville), people will be happier and ready to spend more,” says Engel, who likens his winning the hackathon to a “Rocky” moment because he’d never competed in such a contest or created a mobile game.

He and Harris won more than $10,000 in donated consultations with Chicago companies that specialize in crowdfunding, app design, market research, business modeling and Web-ready promotional video production.

Engel, who moved to Chicago from Atlanta in August, is considering morphing Build It! Bronzeville with another app from the hackathon called Pivot, which lets people “virtually” explore vacant lots and buildings on Chicago’s South and Southwest sides and propose viable developments on those properties.

Jennifer Reinhardt, a graduate student at DePaul University, helped develop the Pivot app.

She envisions local residents using it to “crowdsource” ideas for vacant parcels, including posting a photo of a site and offering a development idea on the fly. The goal would be to connect the landowner with the community’s ideals, she says.

If Pivot is added to the Build It! Bronzeville game, participants could use their points to collectively rally for retailers to build on vacant properties and for landowners to negotiate a lease or purchase with the desired retailer.

A prototype of the Build It! Bronzeville app could be ready in a month or so, followed by a beta version available to the public in the summer and a full release in late 2014 or early 2015.

Stephen Perkins, senior vice president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, says the key to the hackathon’s success was bringing community residents together with techies.

“The tech experts want to figure out how to use data, the Internet and mobile devices to make the world a better place, but they don’t know much about the problems,” Perkins says. “To really be creative and make a difference, we have to start with the correct definition of a problem, and the people who live and work in the neighborhood understand what those problems are, and are deeply committed to solving them.”

Though the Center for Neighborhood Technology has little money to throw at app development, today’s technological solutions are within reach and can result in a sudden breakthrough, Perkins says.

“The marginal cost of a technological solution is really low, and opens the door to widespread participation in neighborhoods,” he says.

The center’s interest in the BuildIt! Bronzeville app also relates to its longstanding work in promoting economic “multiplier” effects: Every $1 spent inside a neighborhood boosts the local economy by $1.50 or more.

One of the four judges at the hackathon was Rayid Ghani, formerly chief data scientist for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and now a research director at the University of Chicago.

“It was really encouraging to see people not starting with the technology, but with real problems — and trying to find a solution that’s cultural,” Ghani says. “Why would someone use (the app)? How do you sustain it?”

Ghani says he would like to see such competitions happen year-round and expand the numbers of young, idealistic tech experts getting involved in such grass-roots activities.

ABOVE: BuildIt! Bronzeville creators Joshua Engel, left, and Ronnie Harris at the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Reinventing Chicago event Oct. 24. Photo by Carl Hertz

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