Local Development Tracker Toolkit

Guide: Build a local real estate development news app

Last updated April 2022

This guide will show you how to build a reader engagement-fueled news app to track and map local real estate development. It is hosted on a blank, open-source template site you will be able to customize to build a tracker for your city, using open-source or freemium tools. It is designed for small, local news publishers with limited resources who want to bootstrap a news app, but anyone is welcome to try it out. Read the guide to learn how and get started.

This guide was produced by Jimmy McBroom and Kate Abbey-Lambertz with support from the Reynolds Journalism Institute and is based on our work building the Detroit Development Tracker for Detour Detroit, now maintained by Outlier Media.

We built the Detroit Development Tracker with the goal 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.

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.

Though Jimmy is a civic engineer who led development on the Detroit Development Tracker, Detour did did not have a full-time developer, data journalist or product and design staffer. Detour, which recently joined with Outlier, was a small local startup with a micro-budget that made it difficult to take on new resource- and time-intensive reporting projects without dedicated funding. We know, from our relationships with other publishers in groups like Local Independent Online News and the Institute for Nonprofit News, that our situation isn’t unique.

We built this template site and guide so other local publishers who are invested in service journalism and development reporting can launch similar trackers for their readers. You should need relatively limited support on the design and development side, so you can focus on the reporting and reader engagement.

The development tracker is one approach to real estate and development journalism for underserved communities that you can use to strengthen your service journalism and relationships with readers while filling information gaps.

If that sounds like a project that might benefit your newsroom, readers and community, we hope you’ll give it a try — and tell us how it goes. Read on to see how.

How to use this guide

Table of contents

  1. About this guide
  2. How to use this guide
  3. What you will need
  4. Initial questions to ask
  5. Starting with the data
  6. Organizing your data: Airtable basics
  7. Setting up your Airtable base
  8. Using the Projects table
  9. Using the Contact Us table
  10. Using the Tips table
  11. Setting up the site
  12. Customizing the site
  13. Publishing the site
  14. Managing your development tracker
  15. Harnessing public engagement and support
  16. Launching your tracker for the public
  17. Getting in touch with us