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Lodi residents use technology to make a better neighborhood

Mobile app Nextdoor can share information about excess tomatoes, return lost dogs to their owners and follow up on unusual behavior

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Posted: Friday, August 29, 2014 7:35 am

Brian Young is an active retiree, attentive grandfather and fan of technology. He worked for the state of California for 42 years as an engineer, using cutting-edge technology for his calculations. Today, Young is giddy to show off everything his smartphone can do. He eagerly sends pictures to college chums, plays videos of recent concerts and uses an app to track down historical markers.

But he’s also keeping his community safe, staying connected with his neighbors and sharing his enthusiasm for an app called Nextdoor.

“I’d like to see it all over. It makes people more trusting,” he said.

Young lives in a quiet neighborhood in southern Lodi, where 50 homes form a tidy loop off Ham Lane complete with lush green lawns and plenty of shade trees. He uses Nextdoor to connect to that neighborhood. The app allows him to send alerts when someone strange is rattling windows or when there’s more tomatoes on the vine than one family can eat. It’s a digital extension of Neighborhood Watch groups that brings communities together in a way that the occasional potluck just can’t match.

Young moved to Bradford Circle with his wife in 1979 and enjoyed a neighborhood parade on Halloween where kids in costume looped the circle twice to show off their finery. Young realized during the post-parade potluck that Halloween is one of the only times people see their neighbors, because kids are knocking on all the doors.

Young started a Neighborhood Watch group, keeping a map of the neighborhood with names and phone numbers listed on it. That list is still up to date, and now has a high-tech angle. Some homes are marked with a green N, meaning those neighbors are in the Bradford Circle Nextdoor Network.

Nextdoor is a private social network for neighbors. The company behind the app is based in San Francisco. It was founded by Nirav Tolia, chief executive officer, and a group of entrepreneurs in 2010.

One person makes an account then must sign up ten other people within three weeks to make it official. Users access it for free through the website or mobile app. Once logged in, neighbors can post about the strangers they saw checking car door handles, or the lost dog they spotted roaming around. Or they use it to let neighbors know about a garage sale, a great plumber, or their search for a babysitter.

Today, more than 33,000 neighborhoods in the United States are using the app. There are 23 groups in Lodi. The Bradford Circle network was the second one to crop up.

“We did want to get this thing going. You don’t have to divulge anything about yourself. You can just get information,” Young said.

It’s relatively safe and private. Every neighbor must use his or her real name and verify his or her address. But each user chooses what information, aside from their name, goes live. And no one outside the group can get in.

Young says the network began when neighbor Jerry Bahr sent out postcards to the homes ringing Bradford Circle. Since he’s a retiree and longtime neighborhood advocate, Young offered to take it on. He expanded it to Wimbledon, Harney and Ham Lane, since those backyards share fences with the homes on his own street.

Young can be found circling the street with his fluffy white dog, Daisy, checking in with new residents and inviting them to join the network.

“I’ll talk as long as they want to talk,” he said. “When you get to know everyone, you get a safer neighborhood,” he said.

Chet Somera, crime prevention coordinator for the Lodi Police Department, said he has been researching how police officers are using Nextdoor and similar programs in other cities. Sacramento and Oakland have reported a drop in crime in areas using neighborhood networks, he said. Also, some Lodi officers have the app for personal use in their own neighborhoods.

The Lodi Police Department is currently looking into the possibility of connecting with Nextdoor networks in town, Somera said.

“In today’s world, things are going so fast, people don’t have the time to sit around and attend a meeting. This is another avenue to turn around and communicate with neighbors,” he said.

Police officers don’t have the same access to the private network as the neighbors do. They can’t read the local postings or join the conversation. Instead there is a feature specifically for law enforcement, with its own login, where officers can reach out to residents. Maybe there’s a car accident that has diverted traffic, or a bad rainstorm causing flooding. Officers can let folks know which areas of their community to skirt around.

Somera only sees a few potential drawbacks to using Nextdoor. There’s room for inappropriate postings or spamming other users. But he says the networks users tend to monitor that well themselves.

“It’s nice, though. You can be in touch 24/7 if you want to,” Somera said.

On Bradford Circle, the app is helping out. It has returned lost dogs. Young used it to notify a couple that their garage door was left open, preventing theft. Another time, a neighbor warned of two men checking car door handles and trying to break in. Sometimes, it’s just about telling your neighbors there’s too much produce in your garden, and offering it up.

Aaron Watkins is an expert on what mobile apps can do for communities. He’s the president of Appency, a Sacramento based marketing company that only promotes mobile apps. Recently, he’s been discussing the value of mobile apps for city officials to interact with residents.

“There’s this level of instantaneous communication,” Watkins said by phone. “If you have a network of 300 people, and there was a flood or an Amber Alert or a big community event, within seconds you could have all that information to all those people.”

Doing the same on foot, canvassing neighborhoods, would take hours of work.

That principle holds true for Nextdoor. Instead of knocking on every door, Young can check on neighborhood activities by pulling his Samsung Galaxy out of his pocket.

So the communication is faster. But does a mobile app really make residents feel safer?

Watkins says its possible.

“There’s a shyness in people that makes us not want to go up, knock on a door and say, ‘Hey, we’re having a block party,’” Watkins said. “But knowing that other people are putting themselves out there can help. Plus there is a sense of safety in the digital barrier. It’s why online dating works.”

It also helps that the private networks are somewhat limited by geography.

“You want this to feel local and personal. I can wrap my head around me and 300 people in my neighborhood much more easily than a network for all of California,” Watkins said.

This year on Aug. 5, the neighborhood celebrated their first National Night Out in years. Fifty neighbors gathered for a potluck barbecue on Jerry and Kristy Bahr’s front lawn. The party was visited by Lt. Chris Jacobsen and others from the Lodi Police Department. During the party, Young was surprised to be handed an envelope by Jacobsen.

Inside was a letter of commendation from Congressman Jerry McNerney.

“I appreciated it,” said Young, who keeps the letter on his desk at home. The letter thanked Young for his diligent work bringing the community together. With the help of Nextdoor, that work is fully in the digital age.

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