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City Officials Hope Open Data Standard Will Help Fight Slumlords

BY Sam Roudman | Wednesday, June 26 2013

What if your apartment used to look like this and you didn't know? Photo: Forsaken Fotos

Your house affects your health. Poor ventilation can cause mold leading to allergies and respiratory illness. A layer of lead paint can afflict cognitive impairment in children. But despite the many ways your home can harm you, data describing a residential building’s history are generally available only through a hard-to-navigate interface on a city website or a trip to a city clerk's office. A landlord with a history of negligence might continue to attract tenants who would sign a lease elsewhere if they access to past inspection histories now buried in obscurity.

A new project from the City of San Francisco and Code for America wants to make an open house of all this information. The House Facts Data Standard is an open data format that looks to standardize the reporting of government data on the health and safety of residential buildings.

“It’s presenting a new opportunity to put the data where people may actually find it,” says Ashley Hand, the chief innovation officer of Kansas City, Mo. Her city is one of seven that has signed on to pilot the standard, along with Las Vegas, Nev., Gary, Ind., and neighboring Olathe, Kan. Currently San Francisco is the only city with their data available, but the other six are looking to arrange their data into the format in the next two months.

"All it does is take information that we already had," says Hand, and "format it in a way that’s consistent with other cities."

The data standard describes a way to format data on buildings, the results of their past inspections, and their ownership. With enough data available conforming to this standard, developers will be able to create applications using it. The software company Appalicious has used the San Francisco data to create the first example of such use,an app that scores the relative health and safety of different neighborhoods in the city — but the specification doesn't just provide for aggregate data. A developer could help her users pull information for any building in a city conforming to this standard, highlighting anything from mold problems or faulty wiring to recently completed renovations.

“It enables people to make better decision around their housing,” says Hand, and “by default it becomes a carrot for delinquent landlords because their information is more publicly available.”

Kansas City only heard about the standard a week and a half before San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee announced the standard at the US Conference of Mayors last week, but the standard has been an ongoing project in San Francisco’s department of Public Health since last August. The project emerged after the development of an open standard called Local Inspector Value Entry Specification, or LIVES, which let cities post their restaurant inspection data to Yelp or any other site.

“Housing has much more effect on people’s lives than eating out at restaurants,” says Cyndy Comerford, one of the standard’s authors. Of course the standard doesn’t matter if no one is willing to adopt it, so in the course of its development Comerford consulted with the Mayor’s office in San Francisco, as well as city staff in Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Clearwater, Florida, as well as the civic engagement company Accela.

Comerford thinks once the information becomes available to tenants and legal advocacy groups, it will help people make better decisions about where to live.

“It will bring awareness around the potential health effects of substandard housing,” says Comerford, adding “30 million households live in conditions that impact their health.”