The irony of publicly available information is that you typically have to know a few things before you can find anything out. Wonder what's going in at the boarded-up storefront a few blocks down? Curious about the number of condos proposed for the Mission? Without the address of the storefront or, um, every single street number in the Mission, that's pretty hard to search for on Planning's informative but rather limited Property Information Map. All that's about to change, though: The San Francisco-based startup Buildingeye just went live with the initial version of a map that shows all the projects in the Planning approval process going back to 2009. Projects appear as clickable pins—green is for completed Planning applications, and blue is for projects still under review—and they can be manipulated as easily as Google markers or taco results on Yelp. (Fear not, wonks: All the backend info you know and love is still there on the Accela site; this is just a handier way of getting to it.)
Planning also enlisted Buildingeye to create a separate map specifically for CEQA, and there's another one planned for the Department of Building Inspection. (The CEQA map even lets users set up email alerts for particular addresses, because of a recent law mandating an electronic notification system for CEQA.)
Clicking on a dot takes users to a synopsis of the project, and there's a button at the bottom of each synopsis that navigates to Planning's existing website, where users can find full documents such as Preliminary Project Assessments, Shadow Studies, and Discretionary Review filings.
It's all the same information that Planning already has online; the beauty of Buildingeye's map is that it expands the range of searches you can do on the data. There's a "Filters" tab at left that lets you select document type, a date range, and even enter keywords like "office," "retail," or "condo." (You can't, however, search by developer, because the search function looks through the description field only, not the sponsor field.)
You can even freestyle-draw a shape on the map to see what's proposed for an area of your choosing, a functionality that we plan to use heavily to glean crucial civic insights such as the number of projects planned for this cat right here:
As Buildingeye founder Ciaran Gilsenan sees it, we should be able to learn about the projects going up with the same ease that we can find a Starbucks. Gilsenan is a civil engineer by training, and until recently worked on building projects in Dublin, Ireland. He saw an opportunity to give civic information a tech-literate makeover when he realized how hard it was for people without his training and access to figure out what was going on around them. "People would come to me and say, 'Hey, can you help me find what's happening in my neighborhood?' I would say, 'Yeah, you just go to the city website, press these seven different pages, get to the exact date when it was submitted—or if you know the reference number or the address—and then search around until you find it," Gilsenan recalls. "That's when we were like, 'This has to change.'"
After working up a beta version of Buildingeye using publicly available data in Dublin, Gilsenan sold Palo Alto on a custom-tailored version using their planning data. In the meantime, he left Dublin, moved to San Francisco, and set up shop in the Runway incubator at the Twitter building. Palo Alto's website, which was actually the second American Buildingeye site to go live, launched in November. (The first was Corvallis, Oregon, in October.) San Francisco is third, and the fourth will be Alameda.
As the site takes shape over the next few weeks, searches for the most recent Planning documents will turn up everything on the Planning website that's been added through the previous day. Gilsenan and his team are still slogging through Planning's archives, adding new documents as fast as they can. "The goal is to eventually add data going back to the 80s," he says.
· Property Information Map [SF Planning]
· Buildingeye [Official Site]
· San Francisco Planning Applications [SF Planning]
· San Francisco CEQA Planning Applications [SF Planning]
· Useful Map Thing [Curbed SF]
· Palo Alto Planning Applications [City of Palo Alto]
· Corvallis Building Permits [City of Corvallis]