How a new standard could reveal hidden meaning in building permits

Wed, 2015-07-29 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

Building permits aspire to be the next transit times. When cities standardized the way they reported transit conditions, it launched a wave of services and apps to help people better plan their trips. Now cities wonder what software developers could do with permit data.

A new standard for publishing the data is the key first step. Called the Building and Land Development Specification (BLDS) -- “builds,” for short -- the idea is to encourage development by making it easier for developers to stretch their investment.

Already nine cities and counties in the U.S. have adopted the open data standard for their building permit data. They include Boston; Seattle; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Tampa, Florida and California’s San Diego County.

Little standardization to date
The building permit open data standards were developed with input from a number of technology companies, including Accela, BuildFax, CivicInsight and Zillow. Members of the consortium had found very little of the data was standardized from city to city.

For instance, some cities record the permit location by address. Others use longitude and latitude. Still others have an entirely different system.

And the word “review” means different things in different cities. In some, it means the permit is being reviewed by technical staff. In others, it’s being reviewed by a board. Some even use that same status for both.

Designed for easy adoption
While the service companies would obviously like all of the permit data in a universal format, they have imposed very few requirements to make it relatively easy for cities to offer the data.

The standard has only 10 required fields, including permit number, status, issuance and completion dates, and address and jurisdiction information. Optional fields allow cities to provide everything from the type of permit to information on the contractors involved, the size and number of housing units and the estimated value of the project.

What can be done with the data?
The organizations and cities behind the new standard are leaving it up to software and service developers to dream up uses for the data, though it’s already used to some extent.

Some national permit data is collected through surveys and used as an economic indicator. There are also some companies that have sprung up to standardize and aggregate the data on their own -- data they sell to mortgage lenders and other businesses.

What will come of this effort remains to be seen, as some large cities, such as New York, already provide the data in their own format and are questioning the investment of time and resources to standardize it.


Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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