L&I releases new apps in website upgrade

The Department of Licenses and Inspections has completely overhauled its website, liberating a vast amount of data that was previously relegated to hard-to-find corners of the web or altogether unavailable online.

The new site centralizes information that was, up until last week, spread far and wide. Hearing dates for the Zoning Board of Adjustment, the L&I Review Board, and the Board of Building Standards, for example, have been collected on a single “Appeals Calendar.”

The calendar also provides a greater level of detail about each hearing. For instance, web users can now see at a glance that a ZBA hearing scheduled for Sept. 19, 2012, on a zoning variance for a digital billboard conversion at 1933 West Moyamensing Ave. has been continued six times, starting last December.

“L&I is confident that the new website will strengthen its ongoing efforts to promote transparency, improve customer service, and further partner with the residents and businesses of Philadelphia to make our City an even better place to live, work, and play,” the Department said in a statement.

One feature provides a history of L&I activity for every address, dating back to when the Department began keeping electronic records around ten years ago, according to Maura Kennedy, L&I’s Senior Press Aide. Another allows users to search all licensed contractors in Philadelphia.

The site also includes a series of interactive maps which display citywide business, construction, vacant property, and rental licenses, gun appeals, code violations, and zoning permits issued and ZBA actions taken in the last year. Browse those maps here.

In a press conference Monday afternoon, Kennedy said that L&I had been working on the site redesign and web apps with the Office of Innovation and Technology for over a year. In April, Mayor Michael Nutter signed an executive order aimed at improving online, public access to all city agencies’ data. The order called for the creation of an “Open Data Working Group” and the appointment of a Chief Data Officer. Last week, Code for America’s Director of Government Relations Mark Headd was named to the post.

According to a fact sheet issued alongside the press release, “L&I is the first Department to release its data to the public in a way that is both searchable and mapable (sic). The Department will also be releasing an API that includes all of the fields displayed on our website so that others can also analyze and display our data.”

For the past several years, PlanPhilly and the geospatial analysis software group Azavea have been developing an application called License to Inspect, which would make L&I’s data searchable from even more angles. The William Penn Foundation partially funded the project, with a grant of $82,500. The City has suggested and then backed away from a number of proposed deadlines for releasing the API and data for use in the project.

“The License to Inspect application would include building permits, zoning variances, code violations, cease occupancy orders, refusal of plans, permit revocations, stop work orders, imminently dangerous conditions and unsafe structure and demolition warning notices, among other geo-coded fields,” said Matt Golas, editor of PlanPhilly. “Each of those fields were planned to include, when available, the L&I transaction ID number, the BRT account number, the owner and applicant name, the attorney’s name, the property address, unit number, historic property flags, property type, council district, census tract, the L&I employee assigned, the date assigned, date and details of the last update and the date dropped.”

Golas—full, obvious disclosure: Golas is my editor—said he’s glad to see L&I make more data available on its site, but still hopes License to Inspect will be operational soon.

“The L&I package is a great start but the License to Inspect app which is built out and ready to roll (all we need is for the department to give us the data feed) is much more fulsome,” he said. “License to Inspect will come with user notification prompts and will be equipped with exportable data which will allow the public to search and analyze records, journalists to search for stories, and developers, legislators and civic groups to search for trends.”

At Monday’s press conference, Clinton Johnson of the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology said the City plans to officially make the API, which OIT developed, available for the License to Inspect app, and to everyone else, but wouldn’t commit to a timeframe.

Robert Cheetham, founder and president of Azavea, said that the application was originally championed by Anuj Gupta, former deputy commissioner at L&I. When Gupta left the Department in late 2010, Cheetham said, the project lost some steam. He said that L&I’s creation of its own web app at the same time that Azavea and PlanPhilly had received dedicated funding to build such an app was “a sad squandering of resources in the interest of managing the message.”

“If this was going to be the plan from the start,” or “even halfway through or six months ago,” Cheetham added, “someone from L&I should’ve said so.”

Still, Cheetham and Golas say they plan to see the project to fruition whenever the API is released.

*Note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the Office of Innovation and Technology, not L&I, is responsible for officially releasing the API.

Contact the reporter at jaredbrey@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @jaredbrey

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