The Great American Pixel


A Light, Open Letter To Bill McMachen In Macomb County

A couple days ago news came out that Macomb County, Michigan canceled it’s public tax foreclosure auction at the last minute and sold all 650 properties to private resident Bill McMachen for approximately $4.8 million — the cost of the total back taxes owed on all the properties. You can read about it here (first story on Fox 2), here (Fox 2 follow-up with video interview), and here (Curbed).

Since LOVELAND’s been working on maps and tools around neighboring Wayne County’s fall foreclosure auction — including open online fundraising to purchase properties that no one buys, and asking the public for input on what to do with them — it sounds like Bill might have an open mind and a situation on his hands where some of our work could be helpful, and vice verse as we learn about what’s happening here.

Hence…[drum roll]…an open letter! 


Hi Bill, 

My friends and I have a little Detroit-based venture called LOVELAND that does city mapping combined with different sorts of newfangled internet bells and whistles. We just mapped out all of your new properties on a site called Why Don’t We Own This, which you can see here: http://whydontweownthis.com/dragonfly/macomb (at the moment we only have 625, not the 650 reported, and are checking the difference, but you get the idea :-)).

At the top level you can clearly see the county, it’s cities, and where your new properties are clustered:

You can zoom down to particular cities, like Warren, which touches Detroit and has most of your new properties in it:

And then down to individual properties like this one, with a parcel map and street view imagery where that exists:

And then from there people who sign in can leave comments, ask questions, and generally discuss properties. 

OK, so. I guess my most direct question is would you be interested in talking about how these tools can be customized to help you advertise, communicate with the public, and manage applications for the properties as you try to re-sell them to the best, most worthy buyers? We have a bunch of ideas and can stitch things together quickly.

I’m jerry@makeloveland.com or 908-343-1981 anytime if interested. 

And now just a brief backstory:

Down here in Detroit, the county tax foreclosures and auctions are on another level. Where the whole of Macomb County had 625 properties, last year in Wayne County, Detroit alone had 13,050. Each auctioned for an opening bid of $500, and more than 7,000 did not sell.

7,000 x 500 = $3,500,000… more than a million dollars less than what you spent in Macomb. Crazy, right?

Currently on the homepage of whydontweownthis.com you can see 34,300 properties in Wayne County that have been tagged for foreclosure and will likely show up at the fall auction if their owners don’t jump to pay their back taxes now. So the situation is still escalating.

We’ve been working on an idea called No Property Left Behind that would help neighborhoods collectively purchase auction properties that do not sell. It’s sort of the reverse of how things went down in Macomb: rather than taking everything off the table up front, there’s a plan in place to acquire what gets passed over at the end.

Anyway, enough typed words. Please give a shout if you want to talk about possibilities. 

Thanks a lot, and good luck doing good,

Jerry Paffendorf



2 years ago

August 2, 2012
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2 years ago

August 1, 2012
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2 years ago

August 1, 2012
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No Property Left Behind (Update In Progress)

What to do with a property like this? No one bought this 2 acre property in Detroit when it was first auctioned for $500:

In March I first wrote about an idea for a campaign called No Property Left Behind, which would crowdfund the purchase of $500 properties that go unsold at the annual Detroit/Wayne County Foreclosure Auction, and then crowdsource what to do with them.

When I was at MIT for the Knight Foundation Technology & Engagement Summit last month I got to brainstorm it with some very smart people, and in Toronto a couple weeks ago I mentioned it in my NXNE talk which got a nice little write-up in the Toronto Standard.

Long story short, there’s been a lot of enthusiasm and interest in it, and a lot of questions about how it could work. For those just tuning in, I’m going to try and do a super succinct breakdown of what we’re thinking, why, and big open questions right now, so you can understand and feedback on it, and potentially get involved in working out the kinks and making it real.


Every year Wayne County (which includes the City of Detroit) holds what I understand to be the world’s largest property auction — The Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction. Last year 13,050 properties in Detroit alone were auctioned online with an opening bid of $500, and a whopping 7,235 went unsold. I’m no math star, but that’s more than 1/2. The 5,815 that did sell sold for $20,580,806 to 1,132 unique bidders.

We know that because we wrote software to track the auction as it happened live on bid4assets.com. You can see an archive of the auction at http://whydontweownthis.com/rabbit including sortable lists of highest priced properties, biggest buyers, etc. 

Living in Detroit I know full well while many of these properties did not sell. Certainly incomplete awareness that the auction was even happening or how to participate in it played a role, but the truth is that a lot of these properties have buildings that need to be torn down (or at least cost a lot to fix up), have trash or contamination issues, and are generally in difficult locations (off the beaten path, surrounded by blight, perceived as dangerous, etc). In short they are difficult investments, and your $500 purchase might be a ticket to a $50,000 liability. 

Still, it doesn’t seem right to me that so much land and architecture spread all across Detroit could really be valued at $0 or worse by the market. I feel like there’s a massive failure of imagination happening and that a really hard problem like this might benefit from tilting our heads and looking at the solution space differently.

Having some experience with crowdfunding, you can’t help but add up the unsold properties and think, well, 7,235 x $500 = $3,617,500, and if someone had wanted to suddenly become the largest land owner in Detroit, that’s what it would have cost. 

$3.5 million is both a big and a small number. Many of us barely have $35 to spend right now, but if you’re a wealthy investor that number might look vanishingly small. And to a “crowd” of people from around the city, the region, the country, and the world, you could make mincemeat out of that fundraising goal if the channels for collection were clear and trustworthy. 

I’ll give you an interesting example. Last week a woman named Karen was harassed by kids on a school bus, the video went viral, and someone set up a fundraiser on IndieGoGo to buy her a vacation. With 24 days left on the crowdfunding campaign, more than *30,000* people have given her more than $655,000. To reach a $3.5 million goal in Detroit, those 30,000 people would have to give $116 each. Doable? Of course, especially when you consider the bigger fish who could step up with checks, and that the number of funders could be much higher (if you really tapped into the Detroit spirit). 

We do not live in a world of straight-forward value, so I hate to put Karen and the City of Detroit on a scale and ask which is more worthy of massive crowdfunding. However it’s an indicator to me that people can step up at higher levels to help sort out, clean up, repopulate, and reinvest in a truly great and important American city.


OK, so let’s pick our number. Let’s say that we want to raise $2.5 million, enough for 5,000 unpurchased properties, and that we hope the additional interest the campaign generates will decrease the number of properties left behind to that level or less. We create a transparent bank account (something I think is so important not just for raising the funds, but creating trust around how it’s being spent), we invite the world to put money in it, and when the auction happens we run a script that watches all the auction pages, and if there’s a minute left on something with no bids, boom, it auto-bids $500. And it does this again and again and again until all the money is gone and as many leftover properties as possible are purchased. (And if somehow there’s no room to buy leftover properties…miracle of miracles…the excess money is returned.)

Now let’s assume we’ve all just bought 5,000 Detroit properties that include vacant lots, decrepit abandoned houses that should be torn down, hulking open dangerous factory buildings, and some really nice stuff too. What do you do with all that???

The point of this all is not for the group to continue owning it, but to immediately advertise its availability with the simplest application form in the universe so that you can immediately begin receiving proposals and turning it over to people and projects. Proposals would be reviewed under guidelines that always favor the local first, and fan out from there. Depending on the property and buyer, they can be gifted or resold for $500 - $1,000, or for higher on a case by case (the proverbial Ms Jenkins can’t compete with the proverbial Acme Corp). Land contracts would come with such terms as, if you don’t pay taxes within a year and noticeably move to improve the property you lose it.

Speaking of taxes, I think the way you’d do this is to be upfront that the purchasing group *would not pay taxes*. Here’s how the ethics work out: properties at auction were not generating tax revenues to begin with, and if no one else stepped up to buy them they would continue not generating revenues. If there’s a good faith effort to find an owner who will, then the group is not being a deadbeat. The worst that can happen is that if no one steps up in 3 years time to take a property on, it recycles back to the county to be auctioned again. Yay!

The most open questions I have about the general approach include: 

Should it be done in more targeted areas?

Should it be done in something like a land trust?

How do you avoid liabilities for things like blight violations or people getting hurt on the properties?

Who sits on the board of something like this?

I’m going to come back and edit this more later, it got real long and I have to run, but wanted to get that out. Woo…

2 years ago

June 26, 2012
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One Day In Detroit: Devils & Details Brainstorm 1: Tours, Lists, & Collections

The devil lives in the details, maybe doubly so in software and web design. When you’re trying to keep things simple, you’d be amazed at the tiny games of whack-a-mole that get played as you change one tiny thing that affects something else, and how one seemingly small decision to put something in or leave something out creates a legacy that takes things in a different direction, both in how people use something or don’t, and how they think about what it’s for.

As we attempt to exorcise the devil from the One Day In Detroit beta app, I’m going to try posting a tour a day for the next bit and talk through some issues and possibilities, walking right into the devil’s house. No need to knock, he knows we’re coming. Bastard always does.

The original itch to scratch with One Day is experiencing so many people coming to Detroit for just a day or two and asking over and over again, “What should we see? Where should we go?” You end up developing a standard playlist, typing, retyping, saying, re-saying, and eventually you just want to put it down and share it with everyone. For me, I’ve found myself giving the Whirlwind Sampler Plate Driving Tour a couple dozen times in the last year-ish.

But when you sit down with the app to make a tour, you’re really making a list. It’s a small step from creating curated “experience” tours where things should happen more or less in a certain order, and simply listing themed collections of things that are good to catalog, know about, and be able to choose to visit, but aren’t designed to be done in a day or in a certain order.

I’ll give a few examples.

Playing around, one of the first “tours” I made was really a list of all Detroit locations listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Well, truth be told, I paused after 49 because my typing fingers wept, but you get the idea. I think this is a *great* collection to have all in one place, and One Day makes it easy to compile and share, but it’s certainly not a tour per se.

Same thing with the statue “tour” I started piecing together. While seeing cool statues is a nice thing to do in the city, you’d have to be a pretty freaky dude to only stick to statues on your hypothetical day here (hey, man, I’m not judgin’, and maybe I’m wrong :-)).

And again same thing with the “tour” I just made of Hacker & Maker spaces in Detroit. Maybe you do want to check them all out in a day if you’re into that scene, but it feels like more of a List or Collection that grows over time as new things come online or are discovered.

These three “tours” also have something else in common. As lists/collections I’d love it if other people could add to them. It’s like you want the option to not just make a tour that you publish and control by yourself, but in addition to that, you want to start a list, and you want to be able to choose to make it locked or publicly editable. 

As an example, wouldn’t it be cool to start a publicly editable collection of all public art works in Detroit? The kind where someone who finds a new piece of graffiti can easily add its location to the set? Imagine this for all sorts of interesting things. Then perhaps an aspect of proper Tour creation becomes picking and choosing locations from collections to put in a certain experiential order.

Thing is, if that’s not the firm direction, a seemingly small change forks the app into something like “Find and share things worth doing” and “Catalog and explore everything.”

I don’t know man, I just work here. :-) If anyone has thoughts, let us know at team@makeloveland.com and I’ll share them with Dandelion and Skidmore too.

More devils tomorrow, and everyday for the rest of your life… :-0

2 years ago

May 29, 2012
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One Day In Detroit: User-Generated Tour App Beta

Check it out! We just softly rolled the One Day In Detroit beta app onto the open internets. Over the past 6 weeks or so we’ve been working in a fun little collaboration with our friends at Dandelion Detroit and Skidmore Studio to think and design through the possibilities.

Here’s the skinny on where it’s at right now. On the homepage, if you press the circle it pulls up nearby locations that have been featured in tours. More on that in a sec…

Scrolling down we’ve got a section for Featured Tours, which can rotate depending on what’s going on in town and what new awesomeness gets posted (you can, of course, also search for tours and locations, pull up the full list, and sort by different attributes):

Tours are ordered lists of places with descriptions, addresses, imagery, and driving directions:

Every tour also has its own map. There’s also a Places page that shows the locations of all tour stops in one “global” citywide view. This is a screenshot from when you press the circle button on the homepage. It zeros in on you and shows you things that are closest and what tour it came from, if you want to stumble into something while on the go:

Tour creation is mercifully straight forward. Right now you name your tour, describe it, and start posting locations (name, address or cross streets, short descriptions, and a photo).

You can also say how long it probably takes and whether its best to drive, walk, or bike.

We would LOVE to hear your thoughts on this. It definitely scratches an itch, especially in Detroit, a particularly mysterious city. But as always, the devil loves living in the details. One little irritation or counter-intuivity (<— new word) can spoil the whole soup, and there’s a ways to go to nail it.

Hit the LOVELAND team at team@makeloveland.com if and when the spirit moves you, and by all means please try it out, make a little tour, and let us know how it goes. 

I’m going to start posting a tour of the day while talking through some design issues, ideas, observations, questions, what-if’s, etc. Good people, good times.

2 years ago

May 29, 2012
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Fun With Texting: DetroitSoccer.us

Larry’s been gaining mastery over the world of group text messaging for some upcoming projects, and we just put up a simple text subscription service for people who want to follow neighborhood teams in the Detroit City Futbol League, and the minor league Detroit City Futbol Club, Le Rouge.

Check it out at detroitsoccer.us.

The way it works is you text “Follow <team #>” to 313-499-0940 and on game days you get a text early in the day with who, where, and when they’re playing, along with where the after party is, then afterwards you get the score. That’s it. Just a fun, easy way to stay in the loop. 

The texts look something like this (this is for the minor league team, all other games are free):

We also posted a little city map showing neighborhoods with teams:

If you’re a player or a fan (or a possible fan), we hope you like.

2 years ago

May 29, 2012
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Techno Viking Says Sorry For The Radio Silence

Been working hard in the lab on new releases. Reminded of this internet classic from across the ages while attending the Movement festival over Memorial Day weekend:

2 years ago

May 29, 2012
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Microhoods: Small, Cheap, & Under Control?

Too long, didn’t read: LOVELAND’s working on a system that divides Detroit into many small sections that people with local knowledge can easily explore and update information about. Put the many small sections (AKA Microhoods) together, hold your face a foot away, stare into the distance, and a city comes into focus.

Surprise surprise. LOVELAND Technologies has cleared off some desk space in the lab to start piecing together a new crowdsourced map app called Microhoods. It’s another theme-and-variation on our mapping work like Living In The Map, Why Don’t We Own This?, the Call To Action service map, Site Control, etc.

The basic need is this: Detroit is massive (140 square miles) and has massively widespread disinvestment, vacancy, and the attendant problems that come with that. Really, this is all so massive (massively massive) that many people write the city’s problems off as intractable, and who can blame them? As the city has shrunk from 2 million people to 700,000, at least 1/3 of the city is empty and untended, there are more than 45,000 unintentionally government-owned properties, and 70,000 empty structures.

On top of that there is no good way to keep live record of the situation on the ground (data doesn’t exist or gets old fast), share problems and opportunities (what’s broken, blighted, empty, and/or ready for change?), and invite support for existing projects as well as investment (who’s working on what or wants what where?). 

If we wanted to start attacking those problems in order it would go something like:

• Create a system whereby areas of the city are more manageably sized

• Share as much information as is already known about these places

• Invite people to contribute their on-the-ground knowledge of what’s going on (or not going on) where

• Encourage people to advertise opportunities to help and invest (including plugging in and pointing to people fundraising, volunteering, selling property, etc on various other services)

OK. If you squint your mind’s eye at the problem with us, you can see the outline of a possible solution. 

Larry’s whipped up an interactive grid of the city based on 1/2 mile by 1/2 mile areas (AKA microhoods). They run A - Z from north to south (how convenient) and 1 - 30-something west to east. 

When you drill down to a microhood you get all the parcels that comprise it, a way to toggle layers of information on and off (want to see property ownership? all local block clubs and service organizations? local projects and fundraisers? user-generated content?), update-able survey questions, and a way to say what’s really happening on any parcel.

Over the Easter weekend I’ve been poking around the alpha site making notes. From across the years a mantra came back to mind: “fast, cheap, and out of control.” MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks coined the phrase in an essay back in 1989, proposing a new way to explore other planets using swarms of cheap decentralized robots. What we’re thinking about with Microhoods might be surprisingly similar in some ways, but instead of swarms of robots exploring distant planets, it’s crowds of people exploring Detroit.  

Some fun with remixes, here’s the short introduction to the 1989 essay with inerspliced with microhood updates in bold:

Fast, Cheap And Out of Control: A Robot Invasion of The Universe

Small, Cheap, & Under Control: A People’s Inventory of Detroit

Complex systems and complex missions take years of planning and force launches to become incredibly expensive.

Complex top-down urban planning projects take years and become incredibly expensive both financially and politically.

The longer the planning and the more expensive the mission, the more catastrophic if it fails.

The longer the planning and the more expensive the mission, the less responsive to changes on the ground, the more detached from residents, and the more disheartening if it fails.

The solution has always been to plan better, add redundancy, test thoroughly and use high quality components.

The solution has always been add multiple review boards, triple-check the data, test thoroughly against precedents in other places, and use high quality contractors.

Based on our experience in building ground based mobile robots (legged and wheeled) we argue here for cheap, fast missions using large numbers of mass produced simple autonomous robots that are small by today’s standards (1 to 2 Kg).

Based on our experience in building city mapping and crowdsourcing software (desktop and mobile) we argue here for cheap, fast missions using large numbers of ordinary people equipped with local knowledge, laptops, smartphones, and pen-and-paper.

We argue that the time between mission conception and implementation can be radically reduced, that launch mass can be slashed, that totally autonomous robots can be more reliable than ground controlled robots, and that large numbers of robots can change the tradeoff between reliability of individual components and overall mission success.

We argue that the time between mission conception and implementation can be radically reduced, that budgets can be slashed, that passionate residents and volunteers can be more reliable and informed than paid professionals, and that large numbers of contributors can change the tradeoff between reliability of any individual contributions and overall mission success.

Lastly, we suggest that within a few years it will be possible at modest cost to invade a planet with millions of tiny robots.

Lastly, we suggest that within a couple years it will be possible at modest cost for millions of people to meaningfully invest in a renewed Detroit that makes sense on a sustainable local level.


Like everything, to be continued…

PS I also recommend checking out the Errol Morris film “Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control” that features Rodney Brooks and 3 other…obsessively curious and dedicated people: 

2 years ago

April 8, 2012
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One Day In Detroit Progress

The One Day In Detroit user-generated tour guide app is starting to look pretty slick. Still a ways to go, but it’s functional and simple. We’ve grown our little group of alpha testers and udate-getters to around 30 and have a narrow stream of sweet tours trickling in. If you want to join the group, hit me at jerry@makeloveland.com. Here’s a screenshot of the current look on an iPad: 

2 years ago

April 5, 2012
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