'Bot' tapped to suss out region's hidden economic narrative

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PITTSFIELD — Every few weeks, an automated computer program hunts the internet for good news about the Berkshires.

What this "spiderbot" hauls back to a server in downtown Pittsfield is slowly building a database that, once it's hefty enough, will enable people to take quick stock of public and private investments in the region, in a wide range of categories.

The web crawler and emerging database is the work of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. It seeks to provide a useful new tool to people putting their shoulders to economic development.

Laura Brennan, a senior planner with the group, created the database in the past few months with help from an intern, Alex Valentini of Bentley University in Waltham. While she hopes to eventually open the database and make it searchable from the web, for now, the commission is generating reports based on requests.

The automated project replaces a spreadsheet of investments that Brennan admits was updated "sporadically."

Thomas Matuszko, the commission's executive director, said that as the database continues to log all types of investments, it will provide concrete evidence that money is flowing to all sorts of ventures, public and private, suggesting an ongoing revival.

"To start to change the Berkshires narrative about economic development," he said. "It really starts to tell a story about investment in the Berkshires."

To be sure, it is only a start. Brennan said that, as of late November, the web crawler had logged only 140 entries.

At The Eagle's request, Brennan generated a report on the town of Adams. It showed millions of dollars of investments since 2012, ranging from $1.4 million for a roundabout on Route 8 at Friend and Renfrew streets to more than $1 million for repairs to the town's middle school and $511,000 for upgrades at the privately owned Big Y supermarket.

The Adams report also noted redevelopment work on the Mausert Block, home to the town's former Woolworth's variety store outlet and, to the west, improvements by the state to the Mount Greylock Veterans War Memorial Tower.

In between the two lies the Greylock Glen development site — and yet the database held no records on it. Brennan acknowledged that as an omission that will be corrected.

"As that project evolves, its database entry will include a complex picture of public funding from grants and bond bill allocations," Brennan said, "as well as private funding anticipated through developers."

"The framework is now built," Brennan said of the commission's project. "Our next task is to populate the database and keep it maintained. It is by no means a comprehensive list."

Who will use it? Brennan thinks that once there is more data "meat" on the bone, the database will offer, in one place, a way for private investors to see which roads have been repaired, for instance. Housing developers will be able to get a quick verdict on which schools have been upgraded.

And city and town officials might turn green with envy as they see which of their neighboring communities have landed public funding.

Plenty of the data entries will come across as offering information that is a bit deep in the weeds. For instance, the web crawler will capture evidence of steps taken to clean up polluted industrial sites, known as brownfields.

While that topic might bore average readers, Brennan cites its usefulness.

"The brownfields work in general, and the progress that provides toward redevelopment, is incredibly valuable," she said.

Inside the commission, Brennan and Matuszko said the database will help planners document their own progress toward strengthening the economy of the Berkshires.

That information might enable them to write more effective grant applications, Brennan notes.

The commission can generally turn around requests for reports in a day, she said. People are advised to speak with a commission staffer and talk through what kind of information they seek through a database search.

"We can guide what the parameters are," Brennan said. "And really suss out what their intention is."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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