This editorial article is a part of Civic Tech Month of Technical.ly's editorial calendar.
The City’s search-by-owner property record tool — the product of a hard-won open data victory back in 2015 — was recently removed from the City’s open property data on property.phila.gov, the Inquirer reported Tuesday.
The feature was a win for local civic technologists, who shepherded it from initial development at a hackathon during Philly Tech Week to implementation by the City, showing a path from project into public use. But now, City officials are citing safety concerns as they update systems — even as technologists continue to make the function available through other means.
The change came about last week. It comes as property.phila.gov is undergoing some changes, namely being replaced by a new property application in the coming months. But users searching for open data on property can no longer do so by simply searching an owner’s name. (This reporter’s attempts to search for a list of her landlord’s properties indeed proved fruitless.)
Users can search a property’s address and find the owner’s information, but the change prevents any “heat-of-the-moment incidents that would target a property owner,” deputy finance director Catherine Lamb, whose agency maintains the data, told the Inquirer.
“The overall temperament of events right now” has prompted officials to reconsider issues of “access to information and public safety and people’s safety,” Lamb said.
Folks who wish to search by a property owner’s name can do so by downloading raw data sets from city websites and opening them as spreadsheets on their computers, Lamb added.
The data became truly “open” back in 2015, after former City Chief Data Officer Tim Wisniewski fought to get the data (which was formerly housed on a CD that could be purchased from the City for $100) available for download for free.
The City’s own property search app even offered the very feature — search by owner — that Wisniewski helped build into his first civic app at an open gov hackathon during Philly Tech Week back in 2011.
That adoption into the City’s official system was a major win for open data in Philly, as the city previously went through a major property assessment overhaul for residents who wanted to challenge their assessments, like the 31,000 who did in 2013.
The open data could make it easier to do so. It also made it easier to find slumlords, as users can search where else in the city their property owner might have buildings.
George Donnelly, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center, told the Inquirer that the simple name search was empowering for people without technical backgrounds who had few ways of getting more information about current or potential landlords.
“Not being able to search by owner, it does allow some landlords to operate a little more in the shadows than they did two weeks ago,” he said.
But with the feature still in demand and the data sets still available, technologists have stepped in once again to provide a tool. For folks really missing the search-by-owner function, a handful of people have already launched property owner’s search projects using the full dataset from the City that Lamb mentioned.
I guess I should share this because people are missing this feature enough that there's an inquirer article about it. It's a little rough around the edges but it works. Improvements and code coming soon.
Philly OPA data search by ownerhttps://t.co/M6YY9LX9G3
— sharp (@phlsharp) September 22, 2020
“I saw tweets of people disappointed the name search went away about a week ago,” one Tweeter user said via DM. “The small toy project was created in response to that.”
The data needed to compile Philly's property lookup tool is nearly impossible to download, completely inaccessible without a powerful computer, and useless if someone isn't computer literate.
These are all issues affecting Philly given its one of the poorest cities in the U.S.
— Noah Cote (@n_cote3) September 22, 2020
As such, PhillyLandlordSpotter and propertyowners.phl.party were born. We’re almost certain these won’t be the last projects to pop up in response — about 10,000 people had been performing search-by-owner queries each month, the Inquirer reported.
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