Flip: Building Permits, Mapped, At Your Desk Top

The New York Times, my favorite newspaper, today published on its Web site a very useful and remarkably up to date online interactive map and directory of building permits issued by New York City. The building permit feature is a collaboration between New York City, the Times, and Google and represents another vivid display of the Internet’s capacity to store, organize, and disseminate useful land use and economc data in a way never possible previously.

I can imagine all sorts of intriguing uses for this data by realtors, builders, homeowners, economic development specialists, marketers and the like. Knowing what’s being built and where is among the most authentic gauges of a community’s well-being. But as a writer and researcher who uses building permit numbers and trends to measure whether development patterns are changing in communities, this new tool is just going to save loads of time and add immeasurably to the quality of my reporting once it’s applied to more places than New York.

Used to be that acquiring building permit information was an exercise in tedium. I once spent hours in the county clerk’s office in Manistee County, Michigan, poring over monthly building permit surveys from every township and municipality. The surveys, on plain white paper, were generally filled in by hand. More recently, regional councils of government collected the county and township building permit data, and published online summaries that provided raw numbers but not locations. Generally the most recent data was months old.

The New York City building permit data is up to date through the end of June, includes summaries of each permit, and is displayed on a map that gives actual locations. I’ve not encountered a more accurate and timely assessment of such a basic measure of economic activity and housing preferences. Neat stuff.

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