Palo Alto Maps Planning Permits and Construction Activity

City officials have launched a GIS app for citizens who want to track permit project status and discover details about construction activity in their neighborhoods.

by / November 20, 2014
BuildingEye, displayed above, is a new tool that maps building activity with GIS data. BuildingEye

Want to find out how a community is changing? Look at its architecture. The facade of a storefront might change, and with it, its services. An apartment may be raised, and consequently, bring congestion. Change manifests itself in signage, home extensions, demolitions, retrofits and construction, all of which can prompt questions that are not easily answered.


This ambiguity has bothered the city of Palo Alto, Calif., until just recently when it unveiled some changes of its own. On Nov. 10 the municipality, known for its Silicon Valley roots, announced the deployment of BuildingEye, a platform that maps building permits, planning applications and other construction-related activity through GIS data. Officials calculate the software service will be a boon for staff, often flooded with calls, and for residents, who want to know about local development.



"We definitely had a need,” said Palo Alto’s Senior Engineer Roland Rivera. “The way we were displaying and disseminating planning application information was basically just on the website in a listed format and the community needed to know the address of the property just to find out the status.”


As someone with experience behind the counter at the city’s Planning and Community Environment department, Rivera said these questions can represent upward of 30 to 40 percent of  inquiries. A multitude stem from passing curiosity. Residents drive past a house or a storefront under construction and assume, with a call or visit, that the city’s staff can easily divine answers without permit dates, tracking numbers, addresses and other info based on a general location. Now, however, Rivera says expectations have been finally realized through open data and some technical ingenuity. 



BuildingEye’s interactive map, updated daily and with three years of city data, enables citizens and businesses to identify past and newly proposed planning applications across the city. Blue dots denote projects submitted but not yet approved. Green dots indicate approved projects. By clicking into the finer details, users can find a project’s description, status updates, department reference numbers, who’s applying for a permit and the name and contact information of the city planner managing the process. Likewise, users can sign up for customized email alerts. They just sketch out an area of their choice and notifications are sent each time a new proposal is added.


“The trick was pointing them to the correct data fields so they could display the right data,” Rivera said of the interactive interface.



Already, the tool boasts a number of sign-ups from citizens while delivering significant support to city staff who hop onto the user-friendly map for reference and to assist with citizen Q&As. City officials have also discovered the map can reveal permits that had been submitted but never processed. Planners are further incentivized to complete applications since every permit is published and linked with their name. Long term, the hope is for the BuildingEye to facilitate data-driven discussions during public dialogs and to be an evolving source for transparency.


“The bigger concept here is that everybody is moving into an age where everyone wants instant information — on their laptop, on their phone, on their tablet — and this is definitely an avenue for that,” Rivera said.



A suite of new features are in the forecast for the app as it develops. Buildingeye Founder Ciaran Gilsenan said they’ll arrive gradually, but current coding efforts are focused on adding notification options for public hearings for permits and — down the road — to design a dashboard for analytics. The dashboard would visualize information about permits by time period, the number of outstanding permits unprocessed and other relevant data. City capital projects and code enforcement activity are also on tap for future iterations of the app.

“We're talking with a number of cities who are now ready to scale up with the added features,” said Gilsenan.

The app was previously deployed in San Francisco as part of its summer Entrepreneur in Residence program, and has been released in larger cities like Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia and Seattle. 


Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.