Department of Licenses & Inspections released new and improved public data sets

On Monday the Department of Licenses & Inspections released a press blast about 11 new and updated open data sets made available in advance of this past weekend’s Code for Philly Hackathon. New data are available both in bulk and on a more narrowly cast level. The sets cover issues ranging from the agency’s inspections to the number and location of properties with “imminently dangerous” buildings.

“It’s great to see L&I releasing a lot of this data and it’s really great to see them targeting these releases to community events,” says Mark Headd, former chief data office for the city of Philadelphia. “They are telegraphing to the technology community, saying we have all this great information and we want your help.  That’s is a very progressive thing for a city agency to do.”

Other new information is available as well, including the number and location of “clean and seal” sites—where L&I has boarded up derelict properties—and data on the agency’s service requests and issuance of commercial activity licenses.

Five of the categories in the package were updated, rather than offering completely new information. Data on code violations, building permits, and business licenses, for example, were just made easier to use.

“Part of why this feels cool is that L&I has taken such a beating and I feel good about the fact that the department is still willing to put all this out there,” says Karen Guss, director of communications for L&I.  “We don’t want to curl up into a ball and hide from our problems. We want people smarter than us to help with our problems. We can really be one of the leaders in the city in participating in this kind of partnership.”

Guss enumerated a number of ways that transparent and accessible data could make the agency’s job easier. In particular she highlighted the ability to better prioritize which dangerously unstable buildings should be demolished. She says the city has about 5,200 buildings that could be classified as dangerous, but only enjoys the ability to knock down less than 500 a year. New models will allow the agency to be more proactive, she says.

Some of the new data sets, such as the commercial activity licenses, were simply too large to release in earlier years. In the cases of the updated sets, the data is simply being made more accessible than it previously had been. It can also be downloaded in bulk, which wasn’t possible before.

In 2012 L&I was one of the first departments to cooperate on a mass scale with the drive towards open data in Philadelphia’s city government. (By contrast the open data proponents periodically clashed with other pillars of the municipal bureaucracy, leading to Headd’s resignation in one particularly notable incident.) But the information made available wasn’t always presented in a particularly accessible format. In 2013 PlanPhilly and Azavea released an online tool called License to Inspect to navigate L&I data, giving public access to certain departmental data considered at the time too unwieldy for most people to make use of on their own.

At the beginning of the Kenney administration, many headlines were generated by the exodus of officials related to open data and other tech fields, which Mayor Michael Nutter had cultivated. But the new administration responded to these concerns by moving its open data team, along with some other prominent tech workers, out of the contested Office of Innovation and Technology and into the new Office of the Chief Administrative Officer.

Headd called the data release a “great sign” for the Kenney administration, L&I, and the open data team. “L&I has some of the best data in the city. I think this is a big win for them and suggests they are settling in nicely in their new home.”

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