Data / Municipal government

City Licenses and Inspections department to launch web app this summer, another dubbed ‘License to Inspect’ to follow

For those of you keeping track of city-sanctioned, good government web apps, you may have noticed a prominent one that still hasn’t landed. Last fall, a public-private partnership was set to launch ‘License to Inspect,’ a robust search tool for the city’s Licenses and Inspections permits, applications and violations that was billed as the most […]

For those of you keeping track of city-sanctioned, good government web apps, you may have noticed a prominent one that still hasn’t landed.

Last fall, a public-private partnership was set to launch ‘License to Inspect,’ a robust search tool for the city’s Licenses and Inspections permits, applications and violations that was billed as the most advanced transparency and efficiency tool in Philadelphia’s digital age, as Technically Philly first reported. The tool was planned to be driven by a scalable, dependable API that would pipe in departmental data and would be able to be repurposed for other city agencies.

It was to be a city data tool being shared more widely by leaner, more agile private groups.

Despite then already being more than two years in the making and having seeming buy-in from all those involved — the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, the city IT office, independent news site PlanPhilly, private geospatial developer Azavea and the William Penn Foundation — the end-of-2011 deadline came and went. Soon after, stakeholders planned for an official launch during Philly Tech Week in April. That didn’t happen either.

The launch event was scratched — some at L&I said they never agreed to it — and the project was punted back to the bureaucratic ether, with no firm deadlines, promises or goals, even as Mayor Nutter announced a detailed executive order pledging just such good government initiatives.

But now, those involved say, this summer — indeed, even as soon as the end of this month — could see the launch of an L&I web tool. Now, we’ve heard such deadlines before, so instead, this story is that what will be launching is an entirely different project altogether.

In May, former L&I Commissioner Fran Burns, who had publicly pushed for the project, was replaced, detailed to the considerably less high profile Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, which oversees the city budget.

The day before word leaked she was leaving, Burns and L&I director of strategic initiatives Maura Kennedy unveiled to Technically Philly an internal L&I web app that will be available on the L&I website, as shown above. Though not quite as comprehensive as the planned ‘License to Inspect,’ it was closer to launch, Burns said, and it had been quietly in development for months. This week, Kennedy confirmed a summer launch, others have said the team is shooting for as early as this month.

“We were excited by the ‘License to Inspect’ project because we thought it would move quickly and get the data out there faster so we could be more transparent sooner,” said Burns. “We always intended on having our own tool.”

The L&I web app will use the same data source planned for License to Inspect, but because the latter is aiming to incorporate a wider array of data fields, they require translation from dated, internal L&I shorthand and acronyms. That single act should not take more than a handful of staff hours, the pair confirmed.

“We are committed to making this happen,” Kennedy told Technically Philly.

So what’s the delay? As early as this February, Azavea founder Cheetham and PlanPhilly Managing Director Matt Golas were using a live, test version of the ‘License to Inspect’ web app. Azavea has halted development, waiting for the city API, which has been tested for inconsistencies and accuracies for months.

When pressed on the delay more broadly, Kennedy says Cheetham and Golas failed to keep L&I adequately involved, leading to a draft project the city couldn’t support — she showed a version with hard-to-understand internal language and inconsistencies. Now, battling simultaneous priorities, L&I and city IT are testing the API. Because the internal tool is closer to shipping, it will go live first, Kennedy said.

The city has faced battling priorities and so the API development and testing has been a slow process, said PlanPhilly’s Golas.

“Every step of the way, Azavea kept [the city] involved in the process,” said Golas, saying any miscommunication on the project came from the city side. But Golas says he just wants the data out. Even if an L&I app launches first, he says, ‘License to Inspect’ offers considerable value.

“It is spectacular, has all the bells and whistles too. This would be the real deal of the city open data conversation,” Golas said. Through its parent organization PennPraxis, the waterfront visoning nonprofit, PlanPhilly has received at least $82,500 in funding from the William Penn Foundation specifically for the development of this application. Including additional funding, the project has cost more than $100,000, said Golas.

[Full Disclosure: Technically Philly parent company Technically Media is currently consulting with PlanPhilly on revenue strategies and has received William Penn Foundation funding.]

So might there be some anger from deep-pocketed William Penn? In the past, the foundation’s spokesman Brent Thompson has said the focus is on getting data in the hands of citizens and journalists, no matter the outlet. Despite years of delay, it’s a tone that city officials rap too.

“We’re determined to use the web to make our department more transparent,” said Kennedy in May. “We need to be mindful of security, but we want to share this data responsibly and widely.”

Companies: PennPraxis / PlanPhilly

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