I wrote in my last post that I found “pain” in the process of finding a licensed contractor in the city (the pain of finding one who can install in the public way remains unmedicated).
I wanted to provide more than a list (and a map) and EveryBlock has already answered “What’s going on across the street from my house?”. I wanted to add value by helping people answer the question, “What contractor should I choose?”
Several other sites help you do this, like BuildZoom, Angie’s List, and the Better Business Bureau, by showing you customer reviews or complaints. I needed something different from mimicking a review site (a lot of the businesses are also on Yelp) so I decided to answer the question, “What projects have these companies done?”
That’s where the City of Chicago’s open data portal comes in: it has a dataset for Building Permits.
Check out 180 Properties, LLC from Skokie, Illinois. They’ve had two permits issued within the last three months. One project, at 3705 N Hoyne Avenue, is for interior renovation: “Remove/replace cabinets, countertops, flooring, patch & repair drywall”. The estimated cost for the project is $80,000. Sound like the kind of contractor you’re looking for? Call them up or keep researching.
You can even see who else is working on this project. Burnham Nationwide is listed as an expeditor on this project which means they’re likely acting as the intermediary between the Chicago Department of Buildings and the companies actually doing the work. Burnham will do site plans, drawings, occupancy, and ensure everything is in order. The property owner is also listed in the permit information.
For people who want to explore construction activity the other way around, finding projects before contractors, I created a “Permits explorer” page. This page searches the Building Permits dataset to show the most recently issued permits for the most expensive projects. Right now a project to alter and renovate Chicago Vocational High School at 2100 E 87th Street has an estimated cost of $40 million. I didn’t realize how much the Department of Buildings is funded by permits until I saw the permit fees.
The permit fee for the school renovation would have been $372,598 fee but the dataset said the entirety was waived (likely because it’s a Chicago Public School). Other projects I reviewed had permit fees between $30,000 and $75,000.
Real estate speculators, development watchers, and editors of Curbed Chicago should find browsing permits useful. The list includes two projects associated with the New City development at Halsted Street and Clybourn Avenue, across from the Lincoln Park REI store. The two permits are held by 1515 N Halsted, LLC. The first is for a “3 story steel framed mixed-use retail, restuarant, assembly (movie theater) building” at 1500 N Clybourn Avenue (for an estimated cost of $26,403,193), and the second permit describes a 7 story parking garage at 710 W Schiller Street (for $21,518,012).
How it works
I used my programming magic – I prefer PHP – to query the Socrata Open Data API (or SODA) to look for the given contractor’s name in one of eight name fields (there are 16 name fields) and then return information about the most recent permits. The Building Permits dataset gives the project location, work description, and its estimated cost. I figured you could use the project’s estimated cost to gauge the kind of work the contractor does – is the contractor more familiar with big jobs, or little jobs?
This method isn’t the best. Ideally there’d be a relational database where the “Contractor ID” in the licensed contractors dataset would match a “Contractor ID” field in the permit dataset. But the licensed contractors dataset doesn’t have a unique ID field, and isn’t even on the data portal.
Instead, I’m finding contractor-to-project matches by finding the first two or three words of the contractor’s name at the beginning of eight of the 16 name fields in the permit field. SODA works quickly on the query and it passes the results back to PHP in no time.
In the future I’d like to pull in scores and reviews from Yelp and other sites that have APIs (Angies List and Better Business Bureau don’t), as well as try to determine the name of the building – if it has one – by querying OpenStreetMap Nominatim.