CategoryBusiness

The inside track on how Aldertrack works

Mike Fourcher and Claudia Morell talk about Aldertrack at ChiHackNight

Crappy iPhone shot of Mike Fourcher (left) and Claudia Morell (right) talking about the information that Aldertrack collects on Chicago City Council, boards, commissions, and electeds.

Mike Fourcher, founder of Aldertrack, and perpetual “news startup antagonist” (okay, I don’t remember the actual adjective he used), joined his colleague Claudia Morell, a reporter, and us at ChiHackNight on Tuesday night to explain how Aldertrack works.

ChiHackNight heard from Aldertrack’s former staffer Jimm Dispensa earlier in the year about the tools and processes they use to publish, but it’s hard to call tonight’s meeting a followup from the meeting with Dispensa, because they were focused on entirely different parts of the operation.

Tonight was more about the politics that Aldertrack “interferes” with.

As with most of my posts derived from my notes on the ChiHackNight collaborative agenda document these are paraphrased sentences, not quotations.

Presentation title: “Not really open data”

There are ~70 different boards and commissions in the City of Chicago, but information about each is sparse. Most don’t have their own website, but the bigger ones do.

In our quarterly report product – the first was published in August – we display a picture, a name, background on their day job, an email, and a phone number. It was hard to find this kind of information. If their appointment requires City Council approval then it can be a little easier to find the resolution that appointed them.

Issues in hunting down information

  • Sometimes information didn’t match.
  • Sometimes the source documents is missing data, like the appointment or expiration date.
  • The mayor’s fashion council, we weren’t sure if they met, what their purpose was.
  • Eventually we found pension board compensation amounts in state law.

Fourcher: City agency staff have basically been trained that they should never answer any questions from the press. The rule is to refer press to the mayor’s press office, so that they can make it hard for the press to get information. There’s a lot of information that’s obscure, whether purposely or not.

We published the Quarterly Report as a PDF but eventually we want to put it online so that you can click on someone’s name and see what other boards they serve on.

The content we find, and put in our Quarterly Report and Clout.wiki, is something we refer to in our reporting.

[I didn’t take any notes about the Clout.wiki, but there’s a lot of information in the questions and answers below.]

Q&A

Alex Soble: Does the city council do more than we think they do?

Claudia: There’s this perception that aldermen are a rubber stamp, or just there to approve the mayor’s agenda. I think that’s part of the problem.

Because people think that the news media is less likely to cover the things that are covered in the “big” committees (like finance). The education committee doesn’t seem to matter to a wider audience.

We put the TIF expenditures data in our newsletter, and I don’t think that’s something you found in the Tribune.

I also come from the NYC city council, where it operates differently. There’s less conflict in Chicago, especially when it comes to the budget [Claudia described how the city council ripped Bloomberg’s proposed budget to shreds and inserted their own pieces.]. There’s no speaker here that decides what bills get voted on, while Chicago’s mayor presides over the meeting.

Mike: Chicago isn’t a true representative democracy, but it’s less of a terrible thing than people think it is.

Eric Sherman: Why isn’t the wiki open?

Mike: It’s our site, and we don’t want to take the risk that people write dumb things. We close it off to everyone. We would love to hear from someone who has information, and we would check it, and then post it. We want to run it through the journalistic process we adhere to.
Claudia: We don’t have enough staff to moderate the wiki.
Mike: I don’t think even one full-time person could do it.

Forest Gregg: Many of the application processes are hard to figure out in Chicago. I love the documenting you’ve been doing of all the different commissions. What have you heard from users if they would like to hear things more on how things work? Lucas Museum…a number of steps that have to happen, a number of bodies that have to sign off on it. For developers, there’s a cottage industry around permit expeditors, but there’s the same problem of knowing how to step through other development processes.

Claudia: Land use boards…Zoning Board of Appeals that’s a 4-member panel that decides whether or not you can get a special use permit (to build a set back garage, or something).
Mike: We initially had this idea that we would have a regular city council product, and a separate zoning product. What we learned is that people who have an interest in land use, have a passing interest. Once the thing you’re interested in is “over”, like a proposed project that gets approved, then you’re not interested anymore.
The people that fall into the category of perpetual interest in land use, they all know each other. We decided to roll that into the main subscription. We have thought of doing trainings on how zoning works, here’s how you build a building in Chicago.
Forest: I think you’re in a good position to…make some flow charts. That information is shockingly hard to find right now, unless you have a professional interest in that area.

Jerry Mandujano: You started with campaigns [I missed the rest of the question] Is there something else that people should know?

Claudia: Property taxes, most other press focuses on how the changes would affect you on a personal level. What we do, we tend to be focused on the nitty gritty, the language of the ordinance, what conversations are going on around City Hall.
Mike: The demands of most of the news organizations is very different, and we have a blank slate. Every time someone zigs, let’s zag, and see what happens. If you read just one day of our product, you’re going to react, “Omg, what is this stuff? There’s so much detail.” If you read us over time then you’re going to get a good picture.
Fran Spielman, that woman is a freaking machine at the Sun-Times, she writes so much, and I mean this in the most positive way. She went on vacation for two weeks, and on the day she came back she published three articles. She has her head above water and she’s easily doing backstrokes.

[Someone commented that there used to be the City News Bureau which did a lot of what Aldertrack is doing.]

Steven Vance: Alderman show their true selves on social media. Many alderman have few followers and I think you’re spreading their thoughts further than they have been themselves. (I was referring to a new section on the free Aldertrack newsletter where they were posting links to weird or interesting tweets.)

Mike: And we’ve been getting some ire for that! There’s a lot of information out there, and we scoop it up, sift through it, and that’s shoe leather reporting. There’s a lot of sitting on the phone and calling people.

Jefferson Park station renovation highlights train station planning deficiencies

Jefferson Park train station rendering

Jefferson Park train station rendering from the City of Chicago. The only difference you see is canopies. What you don’t see is a walkable connection ut thisetween shops southeast of here and the train station – they’re separated by a strip of parking.

Plans for the renovation of the Jefferson Park CTA station are illustrative of the City’s failure to think deeply about how to design the projects that is funding in a way that maximizes potential for residential and commercial development around train stations.

The changes proposed for one of Chicagoland’s most important transit centers are weak. There’s no development plan, or any kind of neighborhood plan or “Corridor Development Initiative” for the Jefferson Park transit center.

Current city policy identifies train stations as optimal places to build new housing and commercial uses.

Without challenging the design to respond to this policy the transit center will continue to use neighborhood space inefficiently and doesn’t respond to demands from residents to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety and increase economic development.

Judging by the renderings, nothing is changing at the Jefferson Park Blue Line station (4917 N Milwaukee Ave). All of the improvements save for the canopy are invisible in this rendering. The CTA’s list of improvements reads like the superficial makeover that many stations got in the Station Renewal program almost three years ago, a stopgap measure until Your New Blue could begin.

There will be LED lighting, new paint, new escalators and stairs, new paving, and a new canopy. Only a few of those things make the station easier to access and use.

Jefferson Park is a major asset to the neighborhood and the city. The station serves CTA trains, Metra trains, CTA buses, and Pace buses to Chicago’s suburbs. The CTA’s September 2014 ridership report [PDF] said there are an average of 7,420 people boarding the Blue Line here each weekday, a 0.1% increase over September 2013. It’s the busiest Blue Line station outside of the Loop and O’Hare airport.*

On Twitter I said that the station should be surrounded by buildings, not bus bays. I’m not familiar with how many routes and buses use the station daily, and I’m not suggesting that space for buses go away. I’m challenging the Chicago Transit Authority and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to come up with a better plan for vehicle and pedestrian movements, and to start welcoming new development.

I pointed out the new Wiehle-Reston Silver Line station in Virginia where a residential building was constructed atop a bus bay (where I transferred from the Washington Flyer bus from Dulles). A plaza connects the bus bay to and apartment lobby and the Metrorail station.

Bus bays under an apartment building in Reston

The bus bay at the Wiehle-Reston Silver Line station in Reston, Virginia, is under an apartment building and plaza linking it to the Metrorail station.

The Metropolitan Planning Council conducted a consultation for the Logan Square Blue Line station – Your New Blue will make upgrades here, too – and the next door city-owned parking lot. Their consultation involved 700 people to decide what development at this station should look like. Their desires were pretty specific: there should be affordable housing, but not any higher than six stories.

The current policy, enacted as an ordinance and expressed in other city documents, allows developers to build more units in the same plot and save them and their tenants money by building less parking. But this policy is insufficient in that has no design review or public consultation attached. It also provides no zoning recommendations to expand the number of places to which it can apply.

A development plan, for which the CDI serves as a good, starting model, would bring residents – and people who want to live in the neighborhood – to discussions about if and how the neighborhood should change. It would hook into another city proposal, from the Chicago Department of Transportation, to build protected bike lanes on Milwaukee, but which ultimately failed. The process would probably uncover latent demand to build new housing in the neighborhood that’s stymied by incompatible zoning.**

The city’s recent choices for development and (lack of) urban design at this station as well as across from the Halsted Green Line station in Englewood where the city is selling vacant land to build a Whole Foods-anchored strip mall demonstrates how little deliberation there is in maximizing transit-oriented development, or TOD.

Their suburban forms are the antithesis of how we should be designing the stations and their environs – they should have higher densities and walkable places.

* Metra has published its 2014 station-level counts! This station had 599 daily boardings, yet not every train stops here. The Union Pacific Northwest (UP-NW) line that stops at Jefferson Park saw a 3.8% increase in ridership [PDF] from January to September 2014 versus the same period in 2013.

** There are no parcels near the Jefferson Park transit center that allow the transit-adjacent development ordinance to take effect; developers have to go through an arduous and sometimes costly process to persuade the alderman to change the zoning. The ordinance only affects Bx-3 districts (where x is 1-3 and -3 is the allowable density identifier).

Morgan CTA station ranks highly in rail system for building permits

Let Your Conscious Be Your Guide

The gutted cold storage warehouse in the background is within a quarter mile of the Morgan CTA station. Photo by Seth Anderson.

Excluding all of the Chicago Transit Authority stations in the central business district you’ll find that the new Morgan station ranks highly in the number of building permits issued within a quarter mile. It has a top spot when you calculate those permits’ estimated project costs. The CTA recently discussed with DNAInfo the results of a preliminary study it conducted that showed how the Morgan station is at the center of a lot of construction growth in the West Loop/Fulton Market area, and a contributing factor to this growth.

Now that Licensed Chicago Contractors shows you the two nearest CTA and Metra rail stations to each building permit, and I’ve become well-versed in writing PostGIS queries on the fly, I wrote a query that lists the CTA stations with the most building permits within a quarter mile (“nearby”).

First, though, let’s count how many stations don’t have permits nearby. With the query at the bottom you get a list of station names, the number of permits nearby, and a sum of the estimated costs of those permits sorted by the number of permits. Since I used a “LEFT JOIN” I also get a count of all the permits (the table on the LEFT) that don’t have a match with CTA stations (the table on the right).

There are 127 rows returned and a previous count of the table told me there are 145 stations, including ones outside the Chicago city limits. (There are stations in Cicero, Wilmette, Evanston, Rosemont, Oak Park, Forest Park, and Skokie.) The first row represents NULL, or all of the stations that don’t have permits nearby. That leaves me with 126 rows and 19 stations without permits, or 19 stations outside the City of Chicago.

I verified this by eyeballing it. I looked at a map and counted roughly 19 stations that wouldn’t have the 1/4 mile overlap with a Chicago building permit. The two Austin stations, on the Blue Line Forest Park branch and the Green Line Oak Park branch, are near Chicago and also showed up as a discrete station in the query results. Austin on the Blue Line was dead last, actually!

Let’s get back on track and look at Morgan now. I don’t think it’s fair to compare the Morgan station area with an expected, higher-activity area like the Loop and Central Business District so I eyeballed the list and started the #1 ranking with the first station outside the CBD.

  1. Armitage (Brown, Purple Express) is the station outside the CBD with the most building permits nearby.
  2. Damen-Milwaukee (Blue)
  3. North/Clybourn (Red)
  4. Addison (Red)
  5. Morgan (Green, Pink)

There you have it, from 2009 to today, the Morgan station had the fifth highest number of building permits outside of the Chicago Central Business District. It beat Fullerton (Red, Brown, Purple) in Lincoln Park, and Roosevelt (elevated and subway combined) in the South Loop. The station’s construction began in 2010 and the grand opening occurred May 24, 2012. During this period Morgan had the second highest amount of aggregated estimated costs at $199,911,953.00, behind North/Clybourn, at $218,118,037.37.

Take this analysis with several grains of Morton salt, though, because the following caveats are important to consider: building permits are really speculative development; much of these may be for kitchen renovations or porch reconstructions; I didn’t look up when it was “for sure” that the station was being built so I don’t know when developers would have become interested.

Looking at a longer period

I will, however, run a few more queries to find how Morgan’s position changes, starting with expanding the query to “all time” data (really the end of 2006 to today). It turns out that when looking through all available years Morgan’s position remains at #5 but other stations change position.

  1. Fullerton
  2. Armitage
  3. Damen-Milwaukee
  4. Addison
  5. Morgan

During this period, which covers the end of 2006 until today, Morgan had the highest aggregated estimated costs of the above five stations, at $236,707,083.00. It beat Fullerton’s amount of $160,825,680.30.

Looking only at “new construction”

Since these include all permit types, including water heater installations and window replacements, it doesn’t give us a good look at economic expansion in the areas surrounding CTA stations. I’ve filtered the data so only “new construction” building permits come through. I’m still interested in stations outside the CBD. Here’s how Morgan performed when looking at purely the quantity of new construction permits issued from 2009 to today:

  1. Armitage, 46 new construction building permits
  2. Southport, 38
  3. Addison (Red), 34
  4. North/Clybourn,
  5. Wellington,
  6. California-Milwaukee,
  7. Belmont (Red)
  8. Ashland (Green, Pink)
  9. Irving Park (Brown)
  10. Fullerton
  11. Damen (Brown)
  12. Division-Milwaukee
  13. Western-Milwaukee
  14. Ashland (Orange)
  15. Damen-Milwaukee
  16. Western-Congress
  17. Paulina
  18. Addison (Brown)
  19. Diversey
  20. Sedgwick
  21. Loyola
  22. Montrose (Brown)
  23. Sox-35th-Dan Ryan
  24. Morgan, 13 new construction building permits

Let’s remove that date filter and look at the whole building permits period of late 2006 to today.

  1. Southport (Brown Line), 80 new construction permits, all-time
  2. Armitage (Brown, Purple), 72
  3. Western-Congress (Blue), 66
  4. Addison (Red), 64
  5. Belmont (Red, Brown), 63
  6. Western-Milwaukee, 59
    Damen-Milwaukee, 59
  7. North/Clybourn, 55
    Diversey, 55
  8. Division-Milwaukee, 53
  9. Sox-35th-Dan Ryan, 51
  10. Wellington, 50
  11. 35-Bronzeville-IIT, 48
  12. Irving Park (Brown), 44
  13. Morgan, 43 new construction permits

Now switching the order method around and Morgan appears better when you look at aggregated estimated costs, from 2009 to today.

  1. Illinois Medical District, $236,020,000.00
  2. North/Clybourn, $172,373,335.00
  3. Loyola, $161,744,075.00
  4. Polk, $106,000,000.00
  5. Grand-Milwaukee, $77m224,500.00
  6. Wellington, $72m802,300.00
  7. Belmont (Red), $71,300,302.00
  8. Morgan, $68,300,800.00

Last query – remove the data filter and look at aggregated costs for the whole building permits period where Morgan maintains a top 10 position.

  1. North/Clybourn, $277029045.00
  2. Illinois Medical District, 236,020,000.00 (same as 2009 to today period)
  3. Polk, $188,794,975.00
  4. Loyola, $185,444,075.00
  5. Belmont (Red), $1635,00,085.00
  6. Fullerton, $129,444,051.00
  7. Wellington, $111,335,051.00
  8. Granville, $99,356,702.00
  9. Morgan, $83,995,800.00

The data I’d really like to have, though, is sales tax receipts for the same years.

This is not a valid PostgreSQL query. The brackets indicate the options I was using to retrieve the above results. The geometries are in or transformed to EPSG 3435 (Illinois StatePlane East Feet) and 1,320 feet is a quarter mile.

SELECT
 COUNT (P .permit_) AS count,
 MIN (C .longname) as name,
 min(lines) as lines, 
 sum(_estimated_cost) as sum
FROM
 permits P left join
 stations_cta C
ON
 ST_DWithin (
  ST_Transform (P .geometry, 3435),
  C .geom,
  1320
 )
[WHERE] [EXTRACT (YEAR FROM issue_date) >= 2009] [_permit_type = 'PERMIT - NEW CONSTRUCTION']
GROUP BY
 C .gid
ORDER BY
 [count,sum] DESC

Morgan CTA station is fueling new West Loop development

First day of CTA Morgan Station serving the Green and Pink Lines

The Morgan Station was designed by Ross Barney Architects.

DNA Info Chicago discusses an informal study the Chicago Transit Authority conducted that showed, “since the [Morgan Green/Pink Line] station opened in May 2012, residential and business development in the surrounding neighborhood has continued at a faster pace than nearly all other markets within the city during the post-recession period.”

Morgan connects two major restaurant rows, one on Randolph Street that stretches much further east at Jefferson all the way west to Racine, and another on Fulton Market that starts at Carnavale (next to the Kennedy Expressway) and stretches to Morgan. Google’s huge new headquarters (under construction) and Coyne College – an HVAC institute – are within walking distance.

Using ridership information and commercial rents data, as well as information from the Chicago open data portal, CTA spokesperson Catherine Hosinski listed the following findings in the study:

  1. “A more than 20 percent increase in new business licenses.”
  2. “New construction and demolition permits spiked from one to 15. (The new construction/demolition permits issued after the opening of the station were compared to a 21-month period during the construction from August 2010 through May 2012)”
  3. “Average weekday ridership increased 30 percent between May 2013 and May 2014, according to information reflecting a 12-month rolling average over a 36-month period.”
  4. “Average weekend ridership increased more than 20 percent.”

Item #2 is data that we can see on Licensed Chicago Contractors. To help CTA planners and residents see this information more readily I’ve added all 145 CTA stations as places you can explore from the Places page.

How can you use this new place in connection with CTA’s study? With it you’ll be able to easily see building permits issued within half a mile from the CTA station and download this data for the last 9 years. You can also sort by projects’ estimated costs to find the biggest investments near the station.

Hosinski admits an important part of the study when she told DNA Info, “the West Loop was showing signs of becoming a booming neighborhood before the station was built…its presence has contributed to the migration of commuters and residents to the area.” Hosinski also said that you’ll find CTA stations at the heart of “most” Chicago neighborhoods and now CTA stations are part of the heart of tracking building permits.

Here’s how to track building permits (including demolitions and new construction) around any CTA station:

  1. Open the Places page on Chicago Cityscape
  2. Search for a station name (like Morgan), route name, or click “CTA Rail Station” in the right sidebar.
  3. Done! The list is sorted by the permit’s issue date, but click on any of the table headers to sort differently.
Morgan station on Licensed Chicago Contractors

We’re tracking over 1,700 building permits within a half mile of the Morgan station since July 2005.

Finding interesting data in the building permits dataset

I had several great conversations with fellow #chihacknight visitors at the 1871 tech hub (222 W Merchandise Mart Plaza) about how to reveal more information about what’s being built in Chicago. I had introduced Licensed Chicago Contractors at the previous week’s hack night and tonight I showed site changes I made like how much faster it is now that I use DataTables’s server-side processing function.

Some of the discussions resulted in suggestions to try new tools and methods that would make processing the data more efficient, or more revealing. What are the ways I can aggregate the data, or connect to similar data from other sources?

One of the new features I announced I’ll be adding is statistics on building activity by neighborhood. I started testing some queries to see the results, and to find the query that outputs that information in a way that’ll pique users’ interests.

I calculated the aggregate estimated costs of all building permit activity for the past 90 days in select neighborhoods. All of the data was automatically generated using a simple MySQL query, but one that will get faster after switching to Postgres. (I eliminated any project whose estimated cost was less than $1,000 because there are many project types that are $0 to several hundred dollars.)

  • Logan Square: 77 projects, totaling $16,295,997.50 at a $211,636.33 average cost
  • West Loop: 30 projects, totaling $27,646,899.00 at a $921,563.30 average cost
  • Andersonville: 6 projects, totaling $358,770.00 at a $59,795.00 average cost
  • Bronzeville: 34 projects, totaling $17,050,662.00 at a $501,490.06 average cost
  • Hyde Park: 20 projects, totaling $13,492,265.00 at a $674,613.25 average cost
  • Humboldt Park: 35 projects, totaling $41,917,988.00 at a $1,197,656.80 average cost

How does Humboldt Park double the other neighborhoods’ average? I think it’s pretty simple: this $40 million Salvation Army residence that’s going to be built at 825 N Christiana Avenue.

The results for Bronzeville were higher than I expected because this is a distressed neighborhood that has lost of lot of population and has seen little development in the past several years. This isn’t to say the neighborhood is poor – I saw a report last fall that highlighted how the purchasing power of Bronzeville residents was quite high relative to neighboring communities.

Ronnie Harris showed me the report when I participated in the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s civic app competition and hackathon. We, along with Josh Engel, designed Build It! Bronzeville, although my participation was really pushing them to develop Josh’s game idea more and construct a paper version of it. Our team won the competition and Ronnie and Josh have kept working on it (I saw them at last week’s hack night).

Projects that pushed up Bronzeville’s average included several multi-family homes at around $1.4 million each on the blocks of 4700 and 4800 S Calumet Avenue.

Code discussion

I can’t test for the “Loop” right now in the way I have my data structured because a LIKE ‘%loop%’ query of the database will include “West Loop” records.

I need to change how the building permit data is stored – in my database – a little so that my site’s PHP codebase and MySQL queries can sift through the data faster. For example, I’m storing several key-value pairs as a JSON-encoded string in a TEXT field. One #chihacknight developer suggested I switch from MySQL to PostgreSQL because Postgres has native JSON-parsing functions.

I looked up how to use Postgres’s JSON functions and realized that, yes, I probably should do that, but that I also need to change the array structure of the data I’m encoding to JSON. In other words, with a tiny change now, I can be better prepared for the eventual migration to Postgres.

Using open data: Showing what projects licensed Chicago contractors are working on

The New City developer recently received permits for over $50 million of construction work across from the Lincoln Park REI.

The New City developer recently received permits for nearly $50 million of construction work across from the Lincoln Park REI.

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.

Smartphones replace cars. Cars become smartphones.

Teens’ smartphone use means they don’t want to drive. Car makers’ solution? Turn cars into smartphones.

The Los Angeles Times reported in March 2013, along with many other outlets, that “fewer 16-year-olds are rushing to get their driver’s licenses today than 30 years ago as smartphones and computers keep adolescents connected to one another.”

Smartphones maintain friendships more than any car can. According to Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd, who’s been interviewing hundreds of teenagers, “Teens aren’t addicted to social media. They’re addicted to each other.” (Plus not every teen needs a car if their friends have one. Where’s Uber for friends? That, or transit or safe cycle infrastructure, would help solve the “I need a ride to work at the mall” issue.)

Driving is on the decline as more people choose to take transit, bike, walk, or work from home (and not unemployment).

intel cars with bicycle parts

Marketing images from Intel’s blog post about cars becoming smartphones.

What’s a car maker to do?

The first thing a car maker does to fight this (losing) battle is to turn the car into a smartphone. It’s definitely in Intel’s interest, and that’s why they’re promoting the story, but Chevrolet will soon be integrating National Public Radio – better known as NPR – as an in-dash app. It will use the car’s location to find the nearest NPR affiliate. Yeah, my smartphone already does that.

The second thing they do is to market the product differently. Cars? They’re not stuck in traffic*, they’re an accessory to your bicycle. Two of the images used in Intel’s blog post feature bicycles in some way. The first shows a bicycle helmet sitting on a car dashboard. The second shows how everyone who works at a proposed Land Rover dealership is apparently going to bike there, given all the bikes parked at an adjacent shelter.

The new place to put your smartphone when you take the train.

* I’m looking at you, Nissan marketing staff. Your commercial for the Rogue that shows the mini SUV driving atop a train full of commuters in order to bypass road congestion (and got a lot of flack) is more ridiculous than Cadillac’s commercial showing a car blowing the doors of other cars, while their drivers look on in disbelief, in order to advertise the 400+ horsepower it has (completely impractical for driving in the urban area the commercial showcases).

Android versus iOS: my Chicago Bike Laws experience

Chicago Bike Laws: dooring info

Screenshot of Chicago Bike Laws, highlighting the dooring law.

For all this talk that more people use Android, and Android has the biggest and still-growing chunk of the smartphone market (in the United States and the world), I’m not seeing that reflected in how many downloads there are of my two apps.

Chicago Bike Laws is a free app that has been available for Android (download) since November 4 and on iOS (download) since November 9, a 5-day difference. Yet the iOS version has had more installations (58) since then while people have downloaded the Android version 32 times (but 5 people removed it).

What gives? The app is exactly the same for both platforms.

Are Chicago bicyclists more likely to have iPhones? I don’t do any platform-specific promotion so you can count that out.

(The experience I’ve had with Chicago Bike Guide activity is different because the Android version came online over a year later and has always been a paid app – Android apps cannot switch between free and paid while iOS apps can. By the way, the Chicago Bike Guide is free for iOS right now and half-off for Android. The comparison is that the adoption rate is much slower for the Android version.)

Divvy considers my suggestions in bike-share kiosk map redesign

The new design that will appear at the newest stations first and then rolled out to all stations. 

I posted two months ago a critique of the Divvy bike-share maps, seen at 284 stations scattered around Chicago, focusing on the clutter of having so many maps (with the third being useless), unclear labels and labels that covered map objects, and the low prominence of the smartphone app and map legend. Two weeks ago the Divvy public relations manager emailed me a screenshot of the new map design and said that these points had been changed. He said they considered four of my suggestions:

  1. Make CycleFinder, the official Divvy smartphone app, more prominent
  2. Change “You are here” design to make it clear where you are
  3. Make streets and streets’ label text smaller
  4. Removed service area map and make legend more prominent

I replied to the manager and suggested that the “You are here” label be made slightly transparent to show that the road does continue beneath it.

Close-up of the original “you are here” design that covered up other objects and wasn’t centered in the walking distance circle.

Update on my work this summer: Chicago Bike Guide now on Android

Yesterday I released the first version of my app for the Android operating system. The Chicago Bike Guide (born the Chicago Offline Bike Map) had been available for iOS since April 2012 and the most frequent question I heard was, “When will you have an Android version?” At first I was probably joking when I said it was coming soon as I had no interest in it. But things change: more people kept asking, I was slowly learning how to publish an app for Android, I bought a tablet myself on which to test it, and Android eclipsing iOS as the most dominant mobile OS had some effect.

I use PhoneGap software to compile the Chicago Bike Guide for iOS. My app is actually an HTML5 compliant website using jQueryMobile and PhoneGap allows this website to interact with some of the hardware on the iPhone (like the GPS components) and software (native notification buttons). PhoneGap compiles for Android and other operating systems, but my experience using the Android emulator put a damper on my progress.

I would install Google’s software development kit (SDK), including Eclipse, and load the app (er, website) into the emulator and it would be terribly slow. It didn’t emulate the Android experience very well. I did this twice; I don’t remember making any additional progress the second time but I probably made different progress, slightly expanding my understanding of how to make Android apps.

PhoneGap 3.0.0 came around, and its use requires focusing on the command line to build apps. In prior versions, for iOS, you would add “helper software” to Xcode but now it creates the Xcode project for you. It was easier to use this time around, as the process in this version was simpler to understand, use, and the documentation had improved. I felt it was time to try again to make an Android version so I “made the plunge” and bought the Asus MeMO Pad HD 7″ tablet from my local Micro Center.

At first I used the tablet to test my app (website) as a website, loading it over the network from my Mac’s web server. After fixing a lot of the display bugs I moved into native app testing. One command, “cordova build android”, and an APK I can email to my tablet appears 30 seconds later. This is one of the few areas where Android has iOS beat in terms of testing.

The iOS development environment requires so much setting up with developer profiles, team profiles, and other gunk I forget the names of. With Android, you simply email the ChicagoBikeGuide-debug.apk file to your device and open it in the Gmail app. Voilá.

After getting this far I stopped progress on developing for Android as I wanted to issue a new version for iOS with features and bug fixes I’d been working on since the last release in July (version 0.8.2). With that out of the way last week, and the new version waiting for Apple’s review, I worked on the Android version on Sunday and finished it today.

Did you catch that? I uploaded version 0.8.3 for iOS on October 3 and it’s been in review since then while in less than 24 hours I set up my Google Play Developer Console ($25 per year), merchant account, store listing, and started selling the Android version.

N.B. Google Play doesn’t allow you to switch the app between free and not free like the iTunes App Store does, so I cannot release it for free during a short promotional period like I did for the iOS platform.

After a sufficient period (a few days, perhaps) of no reports of it crashing, I will promote the Android version heavily.

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