Connecting state and local government leaders
A consortium of tech contributors posted required and optional fields to GitHub and now wants input on how to improve it.
Comparing datasets between local jurisdictions can be challenging because they rarely match field for field, yet more and more public information is regularly released as governments continue to join the growing open data movement.
To better meet demand for actionable open government insights, a consortium of eight civic and real estate technology companies released a permits data standard last week on public code repository GitHub.
Aside from a short list of required permit data and optional status change, contractor and inspections fields, the consortium hopes municipal and county jurisdictions will recommend additions to the draft standard.
“We wanted this to be an open process with tools you often see in open software development,” Mark Headd, developer “evangelist” with consortium member Accela, told Route Fifty in an interview on Monday. “The public can see what decisions are made, and that is a necessary component. If this is adopted widely, it needs to be open to scrutiny.”
The cities of Boston and Seattle and San Diego County in California have already published data in the new Building and Land Specification format, or BLDS. The standard keeps required fields to a minimum, making compliance by governments more likely.
Jurisdictions using the standard can have their permit issuance times compared and take a deeper look into their changing characteristics. The location of a permit might show where construction is improving a city’s economic health or may impact neighborhood gentrification.
“The real power of the standard is it makes those kind of analyses frictionless,” Headd said.
BLDS allows city performance to be measured, and if San Diego County decreases processing time for solar permitting by 75 percent, as it did recently, other counties can use that government’s “normalized” numbers as benchmarks.
The standard also allows for interfaces to more effectively be built on top of the numbers, a specialty of data visualizer and consortium member Civic Insight.
San Francisco-based Civic Insight began as a Code for America fellowship project in New Orleans where co-founder Eddie Tejeda built a comprehensive database of city building conditions. The database became part of the mayor’s blight-reduction plan.
But when Civic Insight tried to launch more broadly, issues faced by other cities weren’t always the same, Tejeda said, reinforcing the need for a standard that technologists could easily integrate into their work.
“We know that every city has permits and descriptions for them, but the question is: Do they bundle different permit types together?” Tejeda said.
Just what is meant by the permit statuses residential, plumbing, electrical and structural may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In the past, every government has had its own set of permitting requirements.
Some cities and counties document contractor license numbers while others don’t, which is why such information is recommended but not required under the standard.
“The hard part is getting a whole bunch of people with a bunch of definitions to agree on a common definition,” Headd said.
Hosting the standard on GitHub was a great way to leverage the external software community, he added, but now Accela and the rest of the consortium—including Zillow, BuildFax, Socrata, SiteCompli, DRiVE Decisions, and Buildingeye—must educate their government customers.
A quarter of the U.S. population is covered by an Accela customer that uses the San Ramon, California-based civic engagement cloud service provider’s building permit processor. The company can build an exporter that works with a jurisdiction's existing systems to format to the standard.
Some governments still can’t use the standard however.
“Most cities have this info in some digital format,” Tejeda said. “But paper-based [cities] still have a ways to go.”
Dave Nyczepir is News Editor for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.