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Social-networking site aims to help unite neighborhoods

| Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, 3:11 p.m.
Penn Hills Progress
Above, a screenshot of a Nextdoor.com neighborhood map. Homes on the map marked in light green are signed up with the social networking service. IMAGE COURTESY OF NEXTDOOR.COM

Social-networking sites such as Facebook allow people to connect with their friends, even if they live thousands of miles apart. Old friendships can be rekindled and users can catch up with schoolmates and out-of-town relatives.

But what about the folks right down the street, whose name you may not know, but who live a lot closer? According to a June 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, 28 percent of Americans know none of their neighbors by name.

That's where a website like Nextdoor.com comes in.

“Penn Hills is so large that we need every tool we can find to reach people,” said Frankstown Estates resident James Beck. “On Facebook, people might be friends with someone they already know, but what about the person two houses down?”

Beck, who moved to Penn Hills about 13 years ago, started a Nextdoor page for his neighborhood: the site allows users to draw a rough map of their neighborhoods, and people who live within the map's boundaries can not just interact but find out about one another.

The site requests users' names and addresses, then looks to see if a Nextdoor site is already established in that area. If not, a new user can create one. Any neighbor with an Internet connection can join up and post information about what's happening in their neighborhood, from community events to help-wanted requests to criminal activity.

“After an incident in which a car was broken into (in Frankstown Estates), users were on there describing the small group of kids who did it,” Beck said, adding that he's also met several of his neighbors because of his interaction on the website.

As a member of the nonprofit Penn Hills Community Development Corporation, Beck is looking to spread the word to local residents about the free service and has been touting its benefits at CDC functions.

“People were initially a little worried that it was invasive ... but I'd always pushed that you can add as much or as little information as you want,” he said.

After a Nextdoor site is established, the website allots 21 days for a minimum of 10 other residents to sign up, or else the site does not stay active.

Currently, five Penn Hills neighborhoods — Frankstown Estates, Crescent Hills, Churchill Valley, Jefferson Heights and Highlands — have active Nextdoor sites, and nearly all of the City of Pittsburgh has established, active sites.

Nextdoor Communications Manager Whitney Swindell said one of the bigger trends she recently has seen is people using the site for crime and safety, and requiring users to verify their addresses and use their full names on the site helps safeguard against false reporting or fake user identities.

“(Users) can verify their addresses through a telephone land line, a postcard sent to their home with a code to enter on the website or a 1-cent charge that verifies the billing address on their credit card,” Swindell said.

Since launching in October 2011, Nextdoor has amassed 6,800 community sites in 49 states.

Beck said it can be an invaluable service for Penn Hills residents. In the absence of a full-time crime prevention officer, he said the website's focus on unifying smaller communities within communities can help in alerting neighbors of crime trends such as burglaries on a certain street or, in the example Beck mentioned earlier, a couple of kids messing with a neighbor's car.

It also fits well with the Penn Hills CDC's mission of “(engaging) in activities that serve to unite the Penn Hills community and (enhancing) the quality of life for its residents.”

“It's been a great add-on to what we've been doing in terms of trying to reach neighborhoods,” he said. “It's strengthened (Frankstown Estates) and reinvigorated people.”

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or pvarine@tribweb.com.

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