Atlantic Cities
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Code Enforcement Goes High-Tech

The recent push from cities to release open data is great for residents, but it can be a boon for municipal governments, too. Take the case of billboards in Chicago. Many of the city's commercial real estate owners have skipped the lengthy procedure of obtaining a billboard permit and just put up one anyway. They get away with it because the city only employs a handful of inspectors, making the billboard codes extremely difficult to enforce. As a result, Chicago loses an estimated $10-20 million in revenue.

Enter CityScan: a start-up that integrates public information on local codes with advanced street-mapping technology to perform the regulatory oversight cities often can't manage with their own small staffs. The company has a unique access agreement with Nokia-owned NAVTEQ, a map developer that drives more or less every mile of road in the United States collecting data through an imaging technology called LIDAR — light detection and ranging — capable of creating incredibly precise maps. By matching up LIDAR results with open permit data, CityScan can spot gaps in local licensing revenue or major safety hazards.

"CityScan leverages public records and private data for real outcomes," says Orlando Saez, the company's chief operating officer.


A example of CityScan sign reflectivity analysis. Image courtesy of CityScan.

Last fall, CityScan raised more than a million dollars in angel investments. While the company has yet to reach an operating agreement, Saez says it's in advanced talks about pilot projects with 11 cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Phoenix, and New York. In exchange for a share of the revenue, CityScan would find various permit or health infractions and issues a notice on behalf of the city, which would then handle adjudication and enforcement.

"We can give you the tools to empower your inspectors to issue citations and permits through this unique technology that nobody else has," says Saez.

CityScan's oversight capabilities stretch well beyond billboards. In New York, for instance, the focus is on construction site permits. Keeping with its "Broken Windows" approach toward general cleanliness, the city wants to improve its recognition of permit expiration and debris removal. Saez says the city recently challenged CityScan to find items like scaffolds, construction fences, signs, etc., its inspectors could not. After making a mile-and-a-half drive down Queens Boulevard, then analyzing city databases for potential permits, the company spotted enough missed items to impress officials — including an illegal, unsafe scaffold outside a nursing home.

"Their jaws just dropped," says Saez, who expects to finish a pilot contract with New York to monitor construction sites sometime in the next 90 days.

The possibilities go on. Using LIDAR to spot road signs, the company can help cities comply with the new federal reflectivity standards that go into effect in 2018. CityScan also might be able to help cities target cigarette smuggling by tracking the activity of legal retailers, which can be identified by stickers in their windows. Once cities tell the company what to prioritize — be it health violations or lost-revenue opportunities — CityScan will take it from there.

"We feel we're helping cities move the needle in what matters, which is revenue and life-safety and comprehensive policy, and that's a big win for everybody," says Saez.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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