'Junk Mail' to the Rescue in New Orleans

Valassis Database a Boon to Repopulation Efforts

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BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- To people who have no use for junk mail, what's happening in New Orleans may come as a surprise. Direct mail could help rebuild a city still struggling to recover as the three-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches.
A newly launched section of a website uses Valassis data along with Google Maps and Street View to provide a graphic depiction of the city's repopulation progress -- or in some sections, the lack thereof.
A newly launched section of a website uses Valassis data along with Google Maps and Street View to provide a graphic depiction of the city's repopulation progress -- or in some sections, the lack thereof.

New Orleans has found a novel use for the massive database used by Valassis Communications' RedPlum direct-mail operation. Normally used to send promotional circulars to virtually every household in the U.S., it's now being used to track the speed of recovery in the Crescent City.

Overall, the Valassis data indicates New Orleans had 146,174 households receiving mail in June 2008, still down 28% from the 203,457 receiving mail in June 2005, two months before the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane and resulting flood.

Groups focus their resources
The nonprofit Greater New Orleans Community Data Center is using the Valassis data to track the city's repopulation progress block by block. Availability of the data already has resulted in volunteer groups in some hard-hit neighborhoods, such as Holy Cross in the Lower Ninth Ward, diverting funds and volunteer hours they had planned to spend on street-by-street repopulation surveys to actual rebuilding efforts instead.

Another group, Kingsley House, is using the block-level data to identify repopulated parts of the Central City neighborhood to enroll children in health insurance.

And neighborhood groups in other parts of town, such as Gentilly, are using the data to show repopulation efforts have been successful as they try to persuade businesses such as supermarkets to come back, said Denice Warren Ross, deputy co-director of the nonprofit Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, which is working with Valassis on the project.

Online tools
On Tuesday, GNOCDC launched a section of its website using the Valassis data along with Google Maps and Street View to provide a graphic depiction of the city's repopulation progress -- or in some sections, the lack thereof.

"One thing our neighborhoods have struggled with since the storm is trying to determine who's back and what do they need to do to get back home," Ms. Ross said. "That's a lot of work for a neighborhood leader to take on when they're trying to rebuild their own home. Data and tools like this allow the neighborhood to do more with their very limited resources."

The data also serves as a graphic reminder of how much of New Orleans remains devastated -- such as a section of the Lower Ninth Ward directly adjacent to where a barge broke through a flood wall. Only one of 25 homes there at the time remains today.

"The rest of the block just looks like a prairie," Ms. Ross said.

In another case, though, the Valassis data shows a block where there were no households before Katrina but 80 today. That's likely the result of a Federal Emergency Management Administration trailer park still operating three years later, Ms. Ross said.

Another block showing particularly high population density in the Valassis data is revealed by Google Street View to be an apartment complex that was fortuitously built atop a parking garage.

GNOCDC has linked the Valassis data with Google Maps and Street View to provide visual evidence and get a better idea of what's behind the numbers. Google's Street View images come from a series of August 2007 photographs, though, so the Valassis data is more current.

Information trove
The group had been working with current Valassis data since early last year, but what it lacked was a comparison to pre-Katrina New Orleans. Valassis executives were preparing to develop a model to come up with pre-Katrina household numbers when they found the June 2005 data sitting in the company archives. It was pure luck, as Valassis, which generally only has an interest in current household data, generally doesn't keep historical data.

"Since the storm, nothing was easy, and we couldn't believe they just had a snapshot in time of June 2005," Ms. Ross said. "It was really such a gift to us, because it allows us to put the current numbers of households receiving mail in context."

While New Orleans did have access to 2000 census data, it was outdated even before Katrina and didn't provide a close comparison to the currently available Valassis data. GNOCDC has been paying what Valassis Director-Data Solutions Mark Gundersen terms a "nominal fee" to cover part of the operational and processing costs for the current data, essentially what the organization had budgeted for the work. Valassis has provided the historical data and consultation on how to use that data for free.

"Where Valassis really put themselves out there for the greater good is that they let us publish the technical details of how their mailing list works and doesn't work for this application," Ms. Ross said. "It's documented in enough detail that another city could follow it ... and ramp up rather quickly."

Valassis gets its data through weekly updates from the U.S. Postal Service via a non-exclusive relationship, Mr. Gundersen said. But because it sends out RedPlum mailers nationally to all of its addresses on at least a monthly basis, Valassis tends to have the most complete and up-to-date address database in the U.S. The post office has similar data, but is restricted by law in how it can share the data, he said.

Hard data helps
While anecdotal information about how much or how little New Orleans has come back is plentiful, Valassis is helping provide hard data to back up the claims, Mr. Gundersen said.

"When they came to us, we felt that it was right for us to help them out," he said. "People think the rebuilding is done. The volunteers have dried up. But the need there is still very real, and they need data to fight for federal funding for rebuilding efforts."
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