Open data standards seed cottage industry in municipal apps
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- Feb 23, 2015
A new open standard for building permits is in the works with the goal of making it easier to share and use open data to create new apps across the municipal enterprise.
E-government solutions firm Accela along with a coalition that includes real estate companies Zillow and BuildFax are drafting the standard and expects to release it in the spring.
“The hope here is that by doing this, we can make permit data much more visible, much more usable.” said Mark Headd, technical evangelist at Accela. That benefits people in communities because residents get to see what’s happening, and it helps governments let people know what they’re doing, he added.
The first step is getting agreement on what the standard will look like. That’s not simple because the standard must reconcile myriad permit types, including residential or commercial and inspection outcomes such as accepted, rejected or on hold.
“Every city, every county, every government has dramatically different rules for how they process a permit,” Headd said, making this first step one of the hardest. “The tension in this process has always been how to make the data described in the standard generic enough that it accommodates different business processes but doesn’t gloss over any detail that’s important.”
Once the draft standard is ready, Accela will ask its customers to beta test the standard and let the public comment on it. After that, the company will likely release an update of the standard, Headd said.
To implement the standard, municipalities will need to use extract, transform and load (ETL) methods to move data from current systems of record to the new standard format and make it available.
The civic data community has generated a lot of interest in developing shared data specifications. Headd pointed out that the open permitting standards project has its roots in municipal open311 efforts as well as in the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), begun by Google so that it could better use transit information.
In fact, the GTSF effort generated a cottage industry specializing in transit apps that produced an immediate payoff for state and local government.
“There are literally thousands of transit apps now that can use this same data,” said Headd. “I essentially get a bunch of apps for free that I don’t have to pay for, I don’t have to manage, I don’t have to update. My only responsibility is to publish complete and updated and accurate information.”
Headd hopes that by showing municipalities how companies such as Zillow and BuildFax can use permit data, they’ll be faster to adopt the standard. But government workers will benefit directly, too, he added. Although civic technologists in New York City may not be interested in permit data from Seattle, they might be interested in services built on that data if they know data formats are the same.
“We want to see people innovate with this data,” Headd said. “I can take it to any city that supports the standard.”
Although permit data is sometimes referred to “civic exhaust” that gets thrown off in the course of doing business, it actually provides great insights into local activity, said Headd.
“Permit data gives us insight into communities, insight into neighborhoods,” Headd said. It shows where is gentrification happening and what kinds of permits are being issued in different parts of cities or counties, he added. “That provides a tremendous insight into how communities are changing over time.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.