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  • Frank Romo

Detroit is on the Rise: Providing the Tools for Safe, Engaged Communities

Originally published in the Portico Fall 2019 Issue for the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

THEY ARE WORDS no one wants to hear when making a phone call: “911, what’s the location of your emergency?” But if Detroiters must make that call, Frank Romo is helping them get assistance as quickly as possible. 

As the public safety and cybersecurity technician for the City of Detroit, Romo, M.U.P. ’16, serves as the sole geographic information systems (GIS) specialist for the City of Detroit’s Department of Public Safety. He has improved a once beleaguered 911 system and updated technical systems and processes within the city’s fire department, EMS, 911 communications, and Department of Homeland Security. 

The work is one element of what drives his passion for urban planning and GIS — giving communities resources to make their constituents’ lives better. 

Romo was completing a post-graduate data fellowship with the Detroit Police Department in 2016 when the city asked him to overhaul its 911 system. He implemented a plan to modernize its GIS and redesign the mapping technology powering one of the state’s largest emergency management systems. “When I first saw the state of the data, I realized that our team needed to start from scratch,” says Romo. “Using advanced geographic techniques, I improved the accuracy of the 911 system and established protocols to create a safer city for residents and first responders.” 

New developments, renamed streets, razed houses, and decades of inconsistent reporting had created gaps in the data that limited emergency service delivery. To offset these issues, Romo continuously updates points of interest, changes outdated addresses, and visits new developments to input data. He also trains operators on the proper protocol for entering street-level information and on how to use the 911 software. “My work supports our call takers, the first leg of a very important relay race,” Romo says. “When they pick up the phone, the person at the other end is already in distress, so seconds count and precision and accuracy matter.” 

As part of this work, he tracks historical response times to identify how agencies can more efficiently and equitably deploy resources. He says the software supports first responders in real-time and sheds light on previously unseen problems in deployment practices: “The amount of institutional knowledge in these departments is astounding. My job is to download that knowledge from our longtime call takers and dispatchers into our technical systems, so new operators have the same information and decision-making tools as our veterans.” 

In order to support interagency communication, Romo also uses the updated GIS software to coordinate with Detroit’s neighboring public safety agencies and Wayne State University to ensure that 911 calls near the city’s border and on the college campus are referred correctly. In addition, Romo configured emergency management apps for the Department of Homeland Security and Detroit Fire Department that allow officers and firefighters to create emergency plans using their smartphones, which then update in real-time to support staff at the emergency response center. He also has worked emergency preparedness projects for Little Caesars Arena, the new Gordie Howe International Bridge, and the Detroit River. 

Romo’s passion for community building and improving lives extends beyond public safety. As the founder of consulting firm RomoGIS Enterprises, he provides technical solutions to empower and inspire residents to make an impact in their local communities. Through RomoGIS, he works on projects that align with his vision of serving disenfranchised communities that are negatively affected by urban inequalities. He works on a variety of projects, from preparing neighborhood master plans to creating full-scale GIS and mobile apps to support community initiatives. “We are using urban tech to advance the health and safety of Detroiters through research, technology, and advocacy,” he says.

Through his recent endeavor, Murals in Detroit, Romo uses GIS as a tool for civic engagement. With RomoGIS colleagues, he developed an interactive web platform that captures and celebrates Detroit’s expansive outdoor gallery of murals and street art. The Murals in Detroit app, which was part of the 2019 Detroit Design 139 Inclusive Futures Exhibition, uses GIS and crowdsourced data to establish an archive of public art within the city. “By integrating social media, we inspire residents to seek murals, contribute images, and build a community repository that reinforces the importance of art and artists in Detroit.” 

Beyond the powerful tool of technology, Romo sees brick and mortar as a vital tool for community empowerment and longevity. That’s why in 2019, he founded the Detroit Developers Group, a real estate development company that owns, operates, and rents six units that he rehabbed on Detroit’s Eastside. As a developer, he seeks to reverse a longtime trend of landlords being detached from the needs of the residents and wants to offer high-quality housing options. “Real estate is an important way to impact the urban environment because it is one of the foundational building blocks of neighborhoods, communities, and social life,” he says. “Development excites me because everything comes together. I can use my GIS knowledge to build maps, my urban design skills to do renderings, and my analysis skills to evaluate the market.” 

Romo’s roles as a real estate developer, social entrepreneur, and civil servant might seem disparate. But the common thread is his passion for urban environments and improving livelihoods, and his all-in approach to life rooted in his East LA upbringing and his hard work as a first-generation college student. “I enjoy working alongside residents to improve their lives and their communities in any way possible, and I believe my contributions as a grassroots organizer, technologist, and researcher do just that,” Romo says. “I was taught to give 100 percent to everything I do when helping others because when you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity, you have to make the most of it — for yourself and for others.”

-Amy Spooner

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