L&I data goes public, catches up

Using the old L&I website was like time-traveling back to the Internet circa 1993- it was very static and not particularly useful. But this week, thanks to a massive overhaul, L&I’s web presence leapt forward into the 21st century and put a lot more department and property information at the public’s fingertips.

As Jared Brey reported for PlanPhilly on Monday, the Department of Licenses and Inspections’ new website now features an actual, usable calendar for Zoning Board of Adjustment, L&I Review Board, and Building Board of Standards hearings as well as a searchable database for violations and permits by address. By far the fanciest, most interesting tool is the updated city map portal, which includes layers for L&I violations, construction permits, and zoning appeals. As more city departments add data sets, this map is going to become even more useful.

Time was that details about L&I Review Board hearings were nearly impossible to find online, and violation information was also in the digital dark. But that was last week. L&I’s new web interface will make it so much easier to access public information about code violations, permits, and hearings that we might just forget all about what life was like before the department put its property activity data online. (Which, remember, was a sad and dark time.)

If you haven’t noodled around on L&I’s new site yet, you should. I’m particularly excited about the property history function. It works like this: Say you want to look up the Divine Lorraine. Over in the “Property History” search field, type in “699 North Broad Street” and up comes a list of recent permits, business licenses, violations, and appeals. Each item is undated (until you click through) and they are presented in no discernable order, but the information is there. Click on any case number or entry and you can get a bit more detail on each item. This is a huge leap forward in terms of openness and accountability.

Now that we’ve done some cheerleading, a splash of cold water. Philly has lagged behind when it comes to the online accessibility of its property data and many of our big-city brethren have lapped us. A few examples:

  • New York City’s real-time online Buildings Information System went live in 2001. Over the last decade the web-based system has expanded to provide full-service access to property information including inspections, violations, complaints, and permits for the city’s nearly 1 million buildings. It’s not pretty but it is a thorough, reliable, top-notch system.
  • In Chicago residents are able to look up building code violations and inspections through the city’s Building Data Warehouse or find permits issued since 2006 online. Chicagoans can also track the status, enforcement, and development plans for the city’s vacant properties. It’s also worth mentioning that Chicago is on a major open data kick, and is the only other city (alongside Philly now) to have a Chief Digital Officer.
  • Los Angeles offers property profiles and activity reports online (as well as permitting) as part of its Department of Buildings and Safety website.
  • In Boston permits issued after December 15, 2009 are searchable in an online database. (Ones before then are also online, albeit in a wonkier format.)
  • Building permits issued in Baltimore are searchable back to 2005. Active building violations and citations are also searchable by address and mappable by neighborhood.
  • In DC the online Property Information Verification System went live in 2010, which includes permit and inspection information. Here too, completists can browse a city data catalog which includes property data sets.

I don’t bring these examples up to rain on L&I’s parade, but to remind Philadelphians that we’re joining this party a little bit late. L&I doesn’t deserve a gold star for making public information public, they’re doing their job. In this case that means daylighting property information and activity online. I say bring on the transparency. We have catching up to do.

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