Digital Transformation Offers Insight Into Our Vertical City

As New York City grows upward, the Department of Buildings is upgrading its information-technology infrastructure for the 21st century.



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DOB NOW: Build – Approved Permits

An approved permit


ECB Violations

An issued violation

In decades past, applying for a construction permit, filing a complaint about illegal construction activity, or recording the results of a building inspection would involve bringing or mailing physical paper documents to the Department of Buildings (DOB). Today, all paper documents move in stages into the department’s online system, DOB NOW. This means building owners, developers, and members of the construction industry can submit documents from their homes or offices. The data is entered directly into the system by an industry professional, eliminating the need for paper processing and data entry. Almost immediately after it is filed, the information becomes publicly available on NYC Open Data.

DOB NOW makes it easier for users to interact with the department online. It also standardizes fields and format, making the information more accurate and easier for the department to process. These digital trails unlock the information from the previous, paper-based system for more efficient analysis. With the uniform online system, DOB can now quickly perform accurate and meaningful analysis to find construction trends in the five boroughs, marshal its enforcement resources more effectively, and determine ways to increase efficiency within the department.

On December 13, 2017, DOB issued a permit to install a sidewalk shed on Crown Street in Brooklyn—an ordinary, and yet often misunderstood, action. Multiply this sidewalk shed by thousands of others like it and you have one of the most notable features of the modern streetscape: The temporary structures that many New Yorkers pass under every day on their way to work and school. Not to be confused with scaffolding, the purpose of sidewalk sheds is to protect pedestrians from hazardous conditions during building construction, demolition, or maintenance. If DOB finds a building façade to be unsafe, building owners are legally required to take action and install pedestrian protection, such as a sidewalk shed, in front of the building until there is no longer a danger to the public. On the surface, sidewalk sheds reflect the boom in construction that is happening across New York City. Behind each shed is a permit signaling the DOB has approved it.

Applications for these sidewalk sheds can be submitted through DOB NOW: Build. This data is used to create a map that is updated in real time, giving the public a holistic view of this critical safety equipment and the city’s construction landscape. On this map, anyone can find the location of every active sidewalk shed permit in the city, how long it has been up, and who is responsible for its maintenance. Thanks to this map, and the underlying digital permit data, the DOB can track every shed around the City, and take quick action if the shed is poorly maintained or is no longer necessary for public safety.

Elevators are another example. Bikes, cars, ferries, and subway trains help New Yorkers move from neighborhood to neighborhood across the boroughs. But we also rely on elevators to move up and down in our increasingly vertical environment. With large, affordable and market-rate residential towers rising above the skyline across the five boroughs, more and more of New York City’s growing population is depending on elevators as an everyday necessity of life. It is more important than ever that the city’s 80,000+ elevators are safe, reliable, and well-maintained. To ensure that property owners are meeting their legal responsibility to properly maintain elevators, DOB is relying on improved data collection and new technologies to deepen its understanding of these critical modes of transportation.

Elevator inspections keep elevators one of the safest forms of travel in New York City, with billions of trips every year and an extremely low number of incidents. As of September 17, 2018, DOB will require every one of the 160,000+ annual elevator inspections to be submitted through DOB NOW: Safety, which will in turn become a dataset on NYC Open Data. Elevators in New York City are required to undergo two inspections a year: one performed by a representative of the City and the other by an elevator company contracted by the building owner. When DOB finds unsafe or inappropriate conditions, it issues a violation, requiring building owners to make amends. The violation data is also on NYC Open Data and is used by companies to understand New York City real estate. Rentlogic, a local startup, uses violation data, which includes elevator violations, to assign letter grades to buildings to keep renters informed about the history of individual buildings before they sign a lease.

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