Announcing the 2015 Accela Civic App Challenge

At Accela, we’re committed to finding ways to leverage the talents and ideas of civic entrepreneurs and open data hackers to benefit the governments we serve.

That’s why we’re excited to announce the 2015 Accela App Challenge.

Building on the success of our inaugural App Challenge last year, this year’s challenge offers a total of $22,000 in cash prizes to developers that build a civic application to work with Accela Construct API and utilize open data. The grand prize winners will be flown to Los Angeles to have their idea showcased to governments officials from all over the country at our annual Accela Engage Conference.

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Building A Permit Data Standard

At Accela, we understand the power of permit data.

For the past several months, Accela has been working with a broad consortium of stakeholders to develop a data standard for building permits issued by cities and counties. We’re helping a growing number of our customers publish their data in this format and we’ve been hard at work building prototype application based on this new data standard.

Now we want you to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty using this data – we want to hear what people think of the data we’re currently publishing, and what they’d like to see in a new building permit data standard.

You can find sample data from a growing number of government agencies in the new Building and Land Development Standard (BLDS – pronounced “builds”) here, and sample apps that use this data here and here.

Why Building Permits?

Thousands of government agencies around the world use the Accela Civic Platform to automate core business processes, including the issuing of building permits, as part of the job of providing essential services to citizens. Accela’s customer base covers an estimated 60 percent of the U.S. population, with customers using our platform to manage the building permit process covering almost one quarter of the U.S. population.

That’s a lot of building permits! And, that’s a lot of building permit data.

Building permit data can provide huge insights to those working to improve communities. Permit data can be used as a proxy for economic activity and allow for insights into how an upswing (or downturn) in the economy plays out at the community level. It might show the changing character of neighborhoods, and how gentrification is playing out in cities.

This data also has the potential to help improve government operations. A shared standard for building permit data that can be adopted by multiple governments will help foster the development of new solutions that can be shared between jurisdictions. It will allow for analysis across jurisdictions, helping to highlight what works well and what doesn’t. And, most importantly, it can help foster a better understanding of the permit process – which can have a direct impact on the neighborhoods we live in – by ensuring a common vocabulary for important events and activities.

How you can help

Data driven decision making is becoming more common in larger cities and states, and there are now efforts underway to help improve the adoption of data analytics in smaller cities as well. We think that data standards – shared specifications that are governed by a broad array of stakeholders, that can be adopted by any government – are a key component in the new data “revolution” we see happening in government.

We need your help to make the BLDS data standard better.

Check out the sample data that has already been published, and open an issue to report a problem, ask a question or suggest an enhancement in the GitHb repo that is being used to develop this new standard.

Together, we can build a better building permit data standard.

Building a Word Cloud Using D3.js for Data Analysis with CivicData

I recently came across an incredible resource, Learn JS Data, a guide that teaches the basics of manipulating data using JavaScript in the browser put together by the team at Bocoup.  The guide is a quick read and covers topics ranging from reading in data to advanced techniques of analyzing data all using the core JavaScript API and the d3.js library. D3.js is an incredible JavaScript library for manipulating documents based on data mostly known for giving you the full capabilities of modern browsers to produce powerful visualization components.

What I learned through this guide is d3.js also contains some incredible data analysis tools to simplify many common data operations. Armed with this new found knowledge I decided to tackle a data visualization I have been wanting to pursue for a while, the word cloud. I’ve always thought it would be interesting to visualize permits descriptions from a given set of time using a word cloud.

As defined by wikipedia a word cloud is:

… a visual representation for text data, typically used to depict keyword metadata (tags) on websites, or to visualize free form text. Tags are usually single words, and the importance of each tag is shown with font size or color.

In the context of building permit descriptions here is what our word cloud will look like once complete:

Word Cloud

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Hacking with Open Oakland

Open Oakland is one of the most vibrant and active Code for America Brigades in the country, and last night we had the pleasure of joining members for their weekly hack night.

Open Oakland is somewhat unique in that it brings civic hacking directly into the heart of city government – holding it’s weekly meetups inside Oakland City Hall. The event last night saw a large turnout of civic hackers all actively engaged on a number of interesting projects.

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The Power of Permit Data

December and January tend to be the most retrospective time of the year, a time when we look back over the previous year to see what we’ve accomplished.


And since we typically think about open data and government operations around the clock at Accela, we thought it would be interesting to look back at one view of government operations during 2014 using open data from the CivicData platform.

With this in mind, we built Permit Review, an open data application that provides a view of six governments and their handling of building permits in 2014 (as compared to the previous year).

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Adventures in Open Data ETL

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure to speak at the Code for America Summit about work that Accela is doing to help the City of Evanston, IL publish it’s restaurant inspection data in LIVES format.

The benefits of publishing data in standard formats is becoming clearer, but many governments still have questions about how it is done. In the next few posts, I want to walk through the mechanics of taking data from Accela Automation and publishing it to an open data portal, and then using that open data to create a LIVES-compliant data feed.

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Data Standards, Restaurant Scores, SMS and 50 Lines of Code

We can all agree that we are at the early stages of governments publishing open data in accordance with data standard specifications.  The value of data standards are well documented and this is not a post that is intended highlight these.  The fact is that currently only a small number of governments are participating in data standard adoption to date – one explanation for this is that the potential benefits of doing so are not always clear.

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Uploading Data to is an immensely powerful data platform that can be used by Accela customers and others free of charge to make data available to developers and others.

For our customers, we offer special utilities that can automate the publishing of data from Accela Automation to the platform, making it quick and easy to share data with those that need it. But for other users, or for Accela customers that want to share data from other systems, it’s still quick and easy to publish data to the platform.

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Linking Your CKAN Instance to

One of the most powerful aspects of the platform is that it is built on top of CKAN – the premiere open source platform for data. enabled users to build powerful apps and visualization with open data, and Accela has developed mechanisms for extracting data from Accela Automation and publishing it to This makes it quick and easy to share open data with users through a world-class platform that has well documented and well understood APIs.

But sometimes one of our customers will need to run their own standalone instance of CKAN. We want our customers to be able to take advantage of the tools we’ve built to publish open data from Accela Automation and also have the flexibility and utility of running their own CKAN instance if that’s what their open data program requires.

There are a number of ways to synch data between CKAN instances, and most are outside the scope of this post. But here is one way to link data in to a standalone CKAN instance that is quick and easy.

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