Stock photo of city model with buildings indicated. Photo: Thor Alvis | Unsplash

Photo: Thor Alvis | Unsplash

Build a news app to track local real estate development, with and for your readers

The Local Development Tracker Toolkit helps small newsrooms build a tool that serves their communities

I started building the Detroit Development Tracker last year with Jimmy McBroom to empower Detroiters to better understand the forces shaping their own neighborhoods. As development activity skyrockets in our city, we believe residents deserve more information about what is being built, and who is building it.

Now, with the launch of the Local Development Tracker Toolkit, we’re pleased to share templates and instructions so you can create a similar resource that serves your communities.

Tracking residential and commercial development projects gives residents another layer of understanding about land use and ownership in their neighborhoods. The tracker takes this information out of the domain of developers, funders and officials, making it more accessible — and actionable — for those most impacted by it. 

The toolkit walks you through setting up and customizing a simple news app that can live as a standalone website or as a subdomain on your news site. It auto-populates individual pages for each development project you enter into a database and includes a map and search functions so readers can look up basic details about particular real estate projects, those in a certain geographical area or matching a keyword. 

This dataset of projects is manually updated by journalists and significantly bolstered by vetted reader submissions. Setting up a tracker using the toolkit should require relatively limited support on the design and development side, so you can focus on the reporting and reader engagement.

Where we are today 

Since the Detroit Development Tracker launched earlier this year, we’ve received more than 100 submissions from users sharing their knowledge about development activity. Those tips have come from all over the city and included photos, reports of new activity at construction sites and previously unreported projects — an overwhelming indication of our readers’ interest in development and appetite for a more comprehensive, accessible way to find and collect this information. 

Across the country, small startup newsrooms have sprouted in the last decade to fill similar accountability gaps and strengthen local reporting for underserved communities. Like us, many of those have strong missions but small budgets. As we built the Detroit Development Tracker, with RJI’s support, but still in a newsroom with too few resources to accomplish everything we’d like, we considered how this model could benefit journalists outside of our region. 

After our tracker launched, we got to work turning our tracker into something others could replicate. We made some tradeoffs — we considered building a news app template that could serve a broader range of reporting topics, or included more customization, but decided to prioritize speed and ease of setup, limiting the tracker’s structure. This is no plug-and-play piece of software — there is minimal coding involved — but the toolkit truly is designed for someone to use with very rudimentary coding knowledge (or to affordably hand over to a developer for just a few hours of work). And for newsrooms with the capacity to customize their tracker more extensively or use it as a foundation for another project, the tracker is open source; anyone can see or fork our GitHub repository

Building your tracker (or have us build it for you!) 

If you’d love to bring a tracker to your newsroom but even the words “fork our GitHub repository” fill you with coding dread, you’re not alone (before this project, that was me) and you’re in luck, because we have another great opportunity to share! 

We’re excited to announce that in partnership with the Reynolds Journalism Institute, we are going to build a tracker for a few lucky newsrooms across the country — find more details on the (free) program and apply here, by May 13, 2022.

Jimmy and I will be working with these newsrooms to handle technical setup and support data gathering, reader engagement and launching a tracker. If you’d like our help, you’ll need to fill out an application by the May 13 deadline. You should probably also still read the toolkit to make sure a tracker as we’ve designed it will bring value to your local journalism ecosystem, and is a project you can maintain. The development tracker is one approach to real estate and development journalism that you can use to strengthen your service journalism and relationships with readers while filling information gaps. If it sounds like a project that might benefit your newsroom, readers and community, we hope you’ll apply or try out the toolkit yourself — and if you do, please, please tell us how it goes.

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