Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout column [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette :: ]
(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 01--News of events such as an Easter egg hunt and a neighborhood cleanup were the nature of the postings Melissa Gallagher had in mind when she set up a social networking account for Fineview on Nextdoor.com.
But the free site became a detective tool when first one and then a string of houses were burgled several weeks ago on Catoma, Compromise and Henderson streets.
"A neighbor told me someone had broken into her house," said Ms. Gallagher, a Catoma Street resident who posted the neighbor's report on Nextdoor Fineview. "I got 13 replies from people. One had a smoker taken, another reported that the exercise weights that were holding down the covers of furniture on the back porch were used to break a back window.
"They tried the windows first because you could see fingerprints."
Within several days, residents of five homes reported details on Nextdoor about break-ins and missing jewelry, computers, cameras, jars of change and a handgun.
"Everybody started posting, and some people who were out of town texted me to check on their houses," she said. "Nextdoor has been a godsend. It has encouraged all these connections, so that people are checking on seniors living near them."
Among the 94 Fineview residents who accepted Ms. Gallagher's invitation to join Nextdoor Fineview, one had a connection to the person who gave up the name of the thief, she said.
The police found him staying with a friend just down the hill in Deutschtown, she said.
Ms. Gallagher said the thief pawned the stolen items Downtown and traded some for drugs. Some of the items were found in a home where police had made a bust for drug deals in the past, she said. Police could not be reached to provide or confirm the details.
Nextdoor.com was founded in 2010 by a group of San Franciscans who provide the free service with funding from corporations such as Benchmark Capital, Tiger Global Management, Shasta Ventures "and Silicon Valley angels," according to its website. Among 31,000 groups in the country using the website, 110 are in greater Pittsburgh, said Jen Burke, the site's publicist.
The service is a closed loop of neighbors invited to participate by the administrator -- in Fineview's case, Ms. Gallagher. Each participant has to verify his address and use his real name. The site is protected by passwords and encryption, and Nextdoor promises never to share the information with advertisers.
When you sign up, the site provides a map of the area you define, with all the streets marked. You can zoom in on parcels to find addresses, and Nextdoor will send postcards to invite the people at those addresses to join.
If your address isn't in the defined neighborhood, you can't get in.
But there is a way to connect with other neighborhoods, said Ms. Gallagher, who set up a site for Marshall-Shadeland. She was until recently the Northside Leadership Conference's paid staff person for the community councils of Fineview and Marshall-Shadeland.
"We set this up to get people connected," she said. "Crime wasn't at the forefront of our thoughts, because we didn't have much crime. It's a great site to use if you have lost a cat, sell Avon or have a chair you want to get rid of."
It can be used to recommend auto mechanics and dentists, too, like other social media, but Nextdoor's originators made the site neighborhood specific to help communities improve camaraderie, security and quality of life.
"At first, I wasn't sure how this might work, because a majority of our residents are older people who might not use computers," Ms. Gallagher said. "But with the new homes we've been building, we're seeing more young people moving in."
Fineview has about 675 occupied residences, and 8 percent of them use the site, Ms. Gallagher said. Green parcels on the map show which ones those are. A few highlighted in yellow indicate addresses that have not responded to the invitation, and the ones in red -- those who haven't been reached -- remain potential members.
"I think 8 percent membership is pretty good," she said. "And even better is that it's scattered throughout Fineview."
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.
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