(Photo by Christopher Wink)
Coders and journalists need to hang out more. It’s becoming something of a mission here at Technically Philly.
On Saturday, at the Open Gov Hackathon presented by Tropo, as a part of the third annual BarCamp NewsInnovation, former Inquirer City Hall reporter and current freelancer Patrick Kerkstra walked into the TV Studio at Temple University’s Annenberg Hall.
In the chilly, cement-floored room, Kerkstra presented a simple problem to a handful of developers there early for the hackathon. On the website of the city’s Office of Property Assessment (the reconstituted Board of Revision of Taxes), the search function is limited to specific address and doesn’t extend to names.
So, say, a small-time property developer wanted neighborhood approval for a zoning variance at a newly purchased property. Until Kerkstra inspired a pack of hackers, there was no easy, online way for concerned neighbors to find out other properties that property developer owned.
Now there is. Visit the OPA Data Liberator.
This very project was called for by Independents Hall co-founder Geoff DiMasi during a February panel discussion on the open data movement, though he expressed dismay at the hurdles to get it done. Like, namely city support. So we should be clear that the OPA, nor any other city agency, endorses this project. It was done by a handful of hobbyist hackers, and to be sure, the project isn’t done.
The search functionality is still a little rough, and the design might leave something to be desired, but there it is. What’s more, of the city’s 560,000 properties, the web application is still, at the moment, downloading and adding ones, hovering around 300,000 as of Wednesday afternoon.
But here’s an example of how a technology community can take data by sheer will.
OPA property details are not openly shared in a downloadable, usable format, says Tim Wisniewski, hobbyist open government enthusiast and Executive Director of the Frankford Special Services District. However, their project has opened up a dialogue with the OPA, which could change course and release its data more freely.
“We certainly are in favor of anything that increases the level of transparency both in terms of our mission and the data available through this department,” Michael Piper, an OPA deputy administrator, wrote Technically Philly in an email. “I am forwarding [these] suggestions to our IT manager in hopes of revisiting this topic.”
If OPA follows through, a regularly updated API of property records would be an ideal addition to OpenDataPhilly.org, unveiled last week, says Wisniewski, who handled the Data Liberator’s back-end PHP. He is currently hosting the tool, but expressed interest in finding its own domain if it grew popular.
To start, the group was given a list of properties, from an anonymous supporter of the project, which they imported into a MySQL database. Then, the group created a Ruby script that scrapes the data from the OPA Property Search site, and puts it into the MySQL database.
Wisniewski was joined by Adam Hinz, Joanne Cheng, Mjumbe Poe and others on the project. Tropo open government developer Mark Headd helped lead the hackathon.
Though natural privacy concerns arise, Wisniewski said an OPA representative seemed to suggest this type of searchability does not breech any legal limitations.
Versioning is available on GitHub here.
Below, watch Headd and Poe discuss the project and compare the struggle for data with when data is available, resulting in a project like the Philadelphia Mural Guide that Poe also assisted on.