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Sep. 12, 2011 11:00 am

License to Inspect: two years later, City of Philadelphia L&I API will drive PlanPhilly transparency app

If the deadlines of today are worth more than the deadlines of the past, the City of Philadelphia is due to release before the end of the year the first, most comprehensive agency data API framework in its history. It will power an online tool billed as a giant leap forward in city transparency. Nearly […]

A screenshot of the License to Inspect tool, built by Azavea for PlanPhilly using the new L&I app. Click to enlarge.

If the deadlines of today are worth more than the deadlines of the past, the City of Philadelphia is due to release before the end of the year the first, most comprehensive agency data API framework in its history. It will power an online tool billed as a giant leap forward in city transparency.

Nearly two years in the making, an online application that allows unheard of data access to the city’s Licenses and Inspections Department — with as much as a year of deep digitized and categorized records to start — will be unveiled by built environment news site PlanPhilly, having been developed by GIS specialty shop Azavea with support from the city’s newly renamed Office of Innovation and Technology and with funding from the William Penn Foundation.

If fast tracked, the project, dubbed ‘License to Inspect,’ could be a signature good government initiative in Mayor Nutter’s reelection bid come November.

More likely, it will land around the new year and the process for the data release — sharing an in-house API to be built upon by a third party — could likely serve as a landmark example for municipal government transparency, a thoughtful, progressive move from a city government trying to raise its standing in the technology community. The trouble, of course, say numerous sources close to the matter, is how long and how much trouble the project took — and what will happen to the API once the app goes live.

Will the L&I data release be a treasure trove of lessons learned to continue the march toward all-agency buy in around data or will it be characterized as enough of a boondoggle as to keep other city department heads wary of the headache?

THE L&I DATA STAKEHOLDERS

PlanPhilly founding Managing Editor Matt Golas

In December 2009, Matt Golas was frustrated.

Golas, a former Inquirer New Jersey editor who helped launch PlanPhilly in fall 2006, said he felt the L&I website was woefully behind in sharing information that would make it more transparent and efficient in an online world. He and Harris Steinberg, the founding executive director of the civic engagement project PennPraxis, which houses PlanPhilly, began developing plans to do something about it.

“When there was something online about development, it was spread across different little websites, like the zoning board and city records and L&I and it was all in PDFs, showing no trends, no chronology, no followup,” Golas said. “It was the pits.”

Golas and Steinberg, joined by project partner Michael Greenle, had a meeting with then William Penn Foundation President Feather Houstoun and the communities grant team that had funded PlanPhilly and PennPraxis on other projects. The team brought in Robert Cheetham, the founder of Azavea, the oft-cited, civic-minded GIS shop (then under a different name).

“Is there any solution?” asked Golas, the old, affable newspaperman turned online news pioneer. Cheetham, the once budding city IT geek turned entrepreneur, was steadfast: “we just need to build it.”

THE PROJECT LAUNCHES

Fran Burns

All in that same month — December 2009 — Golas, Steinberg, Cheetham and a representative of the foundation met with Anuj Gupta, then the Deputy Commissioner of L&I, and soon with Fran Burns, who had been named commissioner of the beleaguered department a year before in summer 2008.

“When I came on, I was immediately interested in getting our information out there, sharing everything in whatever was the best, safest, most reliable way,” Burns told Technically Philly. “It also would save the staff burden of so many freedom of information requests, which should get out there in a timely manner, and show the public that L&I isn’t this secret group like it had been in the past.”

“We wanted this,” echoed Maura Kennedy, Director of Strategic Initiatives for L&I.

Golas and Cheetham had come with a vision: an online app on which the public could search for records, journalists could search for stories, and developers, legislators and civic groups could search for trends. Burns and Gupta were more than interested, Burns said, “we were thrilled.”

Before the end of the year, PennPraxis applied for a nine-month, standard $82,500 discretionary grant from the William Penn Foundation focused on, according to its website, the “development of a pilot web-based tool to increase accessibility of city data.” By January 2010, the project was already moving.

No formal contracts were signed, Golas said, because the priorities seemed clear: L&I would push forward its internal goal to create a process to release its data, PlanPhilly, PennPraxis and Azavea would build a worthwhile and popular tool and the William Penn Foundation would keep its foot on the gas pedal moving toward making city government more transparent and efficient through online tools. [Full Disclosure: The William Penn Foundation funded the Technically Philly Transparencity project, and PlanPhilly has recently become a client of Technically Media, this news site's parent company.]

Jeremy Nowak, the new president of the William Penn Foundation, which funded the development of the L&I API app

“We hope to enhance Philadelphia’s economic competitiveness by making the city’s systems more predictable and fair for both local and non-local developers and investors,” the foundation’s new president Jeremy Nowak said in a statement released for Technically Philly.

Once the data is released, it could be built and displayed, packaged and visualized, sold and shared in any otherwise legal fashion, Golas said of the understanding, a point Burns corroborated. “This data, very factually, belongs to the public, so we’ve wanted to get that back out in any smart way,” she said.

In early 2010, the project was evaluated by the city solicitor for any legality concerns and the online app was being conceived, from how the data would be geo-coded to how the search functionality would be visualized, Golas said. The foundation grant funded Azavea’s development, including the notification and user account functionality, though launching that is not part of this initial scope.

By summer 2010, Azavea had built the app’s draft framework and the data fields had been chosen and trialed. Because of capacity issues at L&I, the stakeholders agreed to a daily data dump process that would be automated (a plan later changed to be an API).

The 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. 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, according to internal documentation obtained by Technically Philly. The app is planned to pull the last six months to a year of data from L&I’s internal Hansen system, which began being rolled out to department teams almost a decade ago, Cheetham said. (Information older than 90 days will be automatically moved to a secondary, non-public database, added Kennedy.)

“In short,” Golas said, with a smile on his face, “everything we could think of that the city has and the public wants but no one could get to without a few weeks of requests and expectations for a big mess in the end.”

By September 2010, everything was green lighted, and the plan was to roll out in the following few weeks, Golas said.

“But then,” he added. “We just suddenly felt the sea change at the city level.”

Another screenshot of the as-yet unfinished ‘License to Inspect’ app. Click to enlarge.

THE INNOVATION BACKUP

No one interviewed for this project would go much further than that. Beyond those interviewed, on the record, no one will say with any great detail what that sea change was, but when the tides do shift, it rarely sets a project back more than year. In this case, it has.

Off the record, the change is clear: the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology got involved. The whys and hows have come from others close to the project and a few other city employees who are watching closely, all of whom wanted to remain on background for fear of repercussions for criticizing their own or another city agency or a potential partner.

In summer 2009, Mayor Nutter signed an executive order to consolidate all city IT services under the new Division of Technology, led by the first ever cabinet-level Chief Technology Officer, Allan Frank. What that meant in practice was that the couple hundred GIS, admin, database and other IT staffers dedicated to specific city agencies suddenly answered ultimately, in theory, to Frank, not to their respective commissioner. That culture shift has been a slow one, resisted by some, as anyone involved will tell you. What’s more, there’s been a huge bottleneck of city IT projects: from down BlackBerry mobile phones, to dated computer software upgrades, to compromised servers to plenty more.

“So the theory became, if you want to get something done, you keep it from [OIT] for as long as you can,” says one lower-level GIS analyst, who asked to remain anonymous in criticizing publicly his own department.

City CIO Adel Ebeid

This issue is something Adel Ebeid, the city’s first Chief Innovation Officer and Frank successor at CTO, will face and one that his interim predecessor Tommy Jones made a top priority.

Already Ebeid has forced a moratorium on technology for the next month at the city level, though that hasn’t yet impacted the API project, which “is running on proven technologies,” said Johnson.

For now, time and time again, sources told Technically Philly that city employees who do want to move the ball forward have their own ways of doing it. The sudden “sea change” in the L&I project a year ago? Well, the thinking goes, L&I couldn’t hide the project from OIT anymore and once it was shared, it had to be assigned to OIT staff, reevaluated and added to an already cluttered prioritization schedule.

Others add that there are issues beyond the collision of two city agencies.

“There is simply a lot of incompetence there,” said another IT lead who has worked with the city IT shop but also asked to not be named publicly. “There are some very good, well-intentioned people at OIT, but there has never been a good culture to keep that top talent around. It isn’t the work, it isn’t even the money, it’s that the best people haven’t stayed there, so when someone who isn’t as motivated, not as talented, not as quick, gets multiple projects, that person gets overwhelmed very quickly.”

So work that could have taken weeks, or even days, has taken months, the IT lead said.

OIT did offer value, cautions Azavea’s Cheetham, when this line of conversation comes up in our interview.

“[OIT] said ‘We do not want to customize this application for L&I, we want to make an API using Open 311 that could be used as a basic framework for almost every city department.’ When DOT said that, instead of the data dumps that the L&I folks could manage, we said, ‘yes, please,’ Cheetham said. “That was the right decision.”

For her part, Burns, the L&I commissioner, said that the Office of Innovation and Technology has been an important ally, one that is working together with L&I to build something important.

“I can say though that we have been disappointed that this project has taken as long as it has,” she added, declining to go into further detail.

Public/private movement in L&I

Creating a data framework and then sharing it widely, including with private partners funded by an outside foundation, is not the first time L&I, like other city agencies in recent years, have partnered with the private sector to cut costs, bolster services and offer advanced training for staff.

Representatives of the Center City Ritz Carlton and Hotel Palomar have given pro bono customer service training to public-facing L&I employees. Citizens Bank executives have given leadership training. Vanguard administration have talked business with L&I higher-ups and educators at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute offered insight on policy.

It was all free of charge.

“We’re getting smarter and faster by looking for outside help and partnering on outside financing,” Burns said.

The question is what these companies get in return.

“As a rule, if you ask, people want to help more than you think. More specifically, I do think it’s seen as mutually beneficial. Good, smart people who do business in Philadelphia understand that if the city operates more efficiently and smartly and is recognized for that, it helps them,” Burns said.

“And that’s good for everyone in Philadelphia.”

WHAT CITY IT HAS TO SAY ABOUT IT ALL

The city IT team was led by Clinton Johnson, a respected veteran of city services and a judge of the Philly Tech Week Open Gov Hackathon, with project management being handled by outside consultant Jeff Worthington.

Johnson says the delay — from receiving the project last September to now — “was just a bunch of scheduling problems, between OIT technical teams, the Azavea technical teams and the other layers, between L&I, PlanPhilly and PennPraxis. There were also gaps between the L&I data.”

His team, he said, is capable but managing more than most realize.

“We need to do a better job to educate the agencies about how long a well-tested, highly-available, secure and scalable product takes to be built,” Johnson said. “There is a high demand for resources at [OIT] and the resources don’t match that demand.”

No publicly shared deadlines for the project exist anymore, though, when pressed in late August, Johnson said, “I don’t think this should take more than a month or six weeks more,” which puts early October as a fair goal, he said. Azavea’s front-end final touches wouldn’t take more than, and probably much less than, 90 days, said founder Robert Cheetham.

“We’re just waiting for the API to be ready to work, with all the data fields we’ve planned for,” added Cheetham, who said he has halted development of the app until the framework is live. “We want to get this out as soon as we can.”

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Click to enlarge

In fall 2010, after finding out about the project, OIT was getting up to speed and marking internally the end of 2010 for a possible launch, as “the project was seen as a real priority,” Golas said.

Yet when initial prototypes were shared, “they didn’t include some of what we asked for and agreed to with L&I,” Golas added.

As the wrangling continued and the holiday craze came through, some frank conversations put April 2011 as the final launch goal. Months later, a full draft was shared in July 2011, and Azavea found a handful of more inconsistencies with the framework.

The website is designed — with some functionality dropped from this iteration, like user notification and account management — the application is modeled and the draft API is live. To date, the OIT staff is working on those eight bugs.

Johnson, the city IT project lead with a good reputation among stakeholders, says this process can go a lot smoother and will, in the future, particularly if all the city departments play nice with the consolidated IT office.

Clinton Johnson

“We need to get involved earlier in projects like this, to set expectations and get a sensible timeline in place. With the new CIO in and this significant shift in how we work together to prioritize efforts, I hope agencies will know to tell [OIT] in advance so we’ll be able to get resources together,” Johnson said. “Right now, the agencies will hide things from us… and the only way agencies will develop a faith in us is if we continue to deliver better than we have in the past.”

OIT has plenty to offer, Johnson went on, from the insight that led to the API framework to the actual framework itself.

This project work can “absolutely be used by others in city government,” Johnson said, adding that the API could run 10 to 20 interfaces, meaning a dozen or more data resources could be maintained by this one tool. From 311 to the Water Department to the police and fire departments to the Office of Property Assessment, “I couldn’t think of an agency that wouldn’t benefit from this,” he said.

Following the ‘License to Inspect’ app’s launch, there is a push to release the full API publicly, which will likely be the truest measure of success.

“[The Office of Innovation and Technology] has suggested that they are interested in making the API available to developers for free, and, if they do that, we will add it to OpenDataPhilly,” said Cheetham of Azavea, which built the regional open data catalog.  “We would be big supporters of this action.”

But there is hesitance at the city level. OIT officials say it’s ultimately L&I’s decision. On this point, L&I is a touch cooler: “We are discussing how best to proceed with this, but the department is firmly committed to making our data accessible to all,” said Kennedy, the L&I strategic initiatives director.

Indeed, all parties are looking a little weary from this battle.

It’s the kind of subject that brings about a certain kind of sigh from even the most tight-lipped of project stakeholders when Technically Philly would ask. When pushed for firmer deadlines, there’s an exasperation, a sense that the answer is as soon as it can happen, without much faith anymore in when that will be.

But, by most accounts, when it does get done, again expected before the end of the year, an important tool will have come alive, stakeholders pledge.

“This will finally offer the direct communication to the public that we’ve always wanted, to show that work is being done, even if it happens while you’re at work  or involves more steps than you realized,” said L&I’s Kennedy. “That is how we can grow confidence in our department. Who in city government wouldn’t want this?”

OIT leadership made many of the right decisions — going to a scalable API framework chief among them — so the next city agency data initiative will be a test of whether the consolidated office can bring the project closer to three to six months, rather than two years.

Before it even arrives, internally, stakeholders are championing the L&I product as something to marvel.

“No matter what happened to get us here, what we’ll have is what every city agency should have in the future” Burns said. “That’s something everyone should be paying attention to.”

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Christopher Wink

Christopher Wink is a cofounder and Editorial Director of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. Previously, Wink worked for a homeless advocacy nonprofit and was a freelance reporter for a variety of publications. He writes regularly about news innovation and best business practices on his personal blog here. The bicycle commuter loves cities, urban politics and squabbling about neighborhood boundaries.

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