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Building Innovation is a collection of stories by 90.5 fm WESA reporters about the Pittsburgh region focusing on efficient government operation, infrastructure and transportation, innovative practices, energy and environment and neighborhoods and community.

City Makes Property Violations Data Public, Searchable Online

Pittsburgh’s old property violations system was, in a word, cumbersome.

“A citizen would put a call into 311. We would then print out that call here (and) manually hand it to an inspector. They would then go out, see the property, inspect it, write on the back of the paper if there was a violation and then give it to someone to be typed up, and then we’d actually mail it out,” said Maura Kennedy, director of the Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections, or PLI. “That took weeks.”

Kennedy said, until recently, PLI had been doing things the same slow, methodical way for the last 30 years.

But no more.

Two of Kennedy’s primary goals over the last year and a half have been to upgrade the department’s technology and streamline its processes, she said.

The entire building was outfitted for web connectivity last July. Inspectors got iPhones and the department is working on putting the permitting and licensing processes online and accepting credit card payments.

The latest upgrade is a new website that gives the public access to real-time information about property violations.

“It communicates to the public what inspections we’ve completed, what violations we’ve found, when we’re going to be reinspecting next and when the court date is, if there is a court schedule,” Kennedy said.

The department has also created a “single, unified set of business practices for the building inspection process,” according to a press release from the mayor's office. Residents might be surprised to learn that there was previously no set protocol for building inspections.

“It was really based on the inspector’s preference, to a large degree, on when reinspect dates were made (and) what violations were written for certain types of situation,” Kennedy said. “There was no consistency, transparency and predictability to it.”

The department is also now giving property owners three chances to address violations before being sent to court.

The initiative was incorporated into the city's open data ordinance last year, which has since collaborated with Allegheny County and the University of Pittsburgh to create the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center. The site houses a collection of datasets from a variety of sources with information about trash collection, drug overdose rates, county parks and more.

So far, PLI's website only lists citations going back to Oct. 15, 2015.

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.