Zonability founder shares thoughts on apps, open data, advice to civic developers

Zonability

Zonability is a zoning information Web application for ‘property owners, renters, sellers, buyers, remodelers, investors, and neighborhood watchdog groups.’ It was an Apps for Californians winner and is now competing in the NYC BigApps 2.0 contest. Founder Leigh Budlong discusses her work, challenges with open data, thoughts on Gov 2.0 and shares lessons-learned advice to other civic developers.

How did you get the idea for Zonability?

Zonability is an idea that I carried in the back of my head for years, but it took the 2008 financial crisis to make it come to life. As a former commercial real estate appraiser, I was always tracking down zoning information. While I knew I couldn’t establish an opinion of value without it, I dreaded doing it because it was time consuming. It meant waiting for city planners to return a call or picking through online PDFs that are hundreds (sometimes thousands) of pages long. The bottom line, it was one of those tasks that always left me with the thought of “there has to be a better way.”

The collapse of the real estate market and subsequent financial meltdown put almost all of my customers out of business. By the end of 2009, I knew I had to re-invent my 6-year old company if I wanted to keep it going.

What have been your challenges developing Zonability?

We are working on multiple fronts so there are several major challenges that range from access to information, developing a sound business model and resource allocation. Zonability is a bootstrapped project. We know first hand what it takes to be a “skinny startup” and have reached out to others in this sector to ask how they are doing it – it is a great community of software developers!

Regarding the technology piece, designing and building the database has been most perplexing given the disparity of data sets and the sheer volume of data found in a typical zoning ordinance.

Incorporating GIS (geographical information system) data became a big part of our product once we learned how to successfully embed the zoning ordinance data. The fusion of two produced our interactive map – I was hooked! The drawback has been the time required to go to individual municipalities to inquire about a GIS shapefiles (this is the format for GIS). Some places have the information online, others require a signed statement outlining the purpose of asking for the data while others simply say “no” because we are not a non-profit. Convincing cities to provide these files has been an ongoing challenge.

What are your thoughts on Gov 2.0?

In my view, we are at the beginning stages of an evolving trend and this is due to several reasons: the popularity of smart phones, increased adoption of self service informational platforms, and stripped government budgets. We are also at the forefront of people collectively solving problems. That in itself may lead to other interesting turns of events. Adoption rates will be fast once the benefits become clear and the process for creating an open data platform get easier.

I’m currently reading The Change Function by Pip Coburn who talks extensively about why some technology is adopted while others are not. It comes down to ease of use. I see the next chapter for Gov 2.0 focusing on how to consume this now open data with a cleaned up and conforming structure such as APIs.

Once that milestone is reached, I anticipate the real adoption to start. One way to track the success of Gov 2.0 will be to monitor the growth of civic software jobs. “Government as a platform” has tremendous potential to be a successful example of public/private partnership. Using Zonability as an example, we started with an idea, grew it to something tangible and are now starting to pay people with different backgrounds and talents in the hope of building a business. That is where I think Gov 2.0 is going … to new job creation and entrepreneurship.

What advice do you have for aspiring civic software developers?

Well, it is a bit like construction – it takes twice as long and costs twice as much. Really though, it is good to recognize early that despite having great plans, things may take longer and not go the way you thought they would. This seems to be especially true for civic software given the “new-ness” of the concept.

These are my tips:

  1. Don’t get down or give up when you hear “no.”
  2. Don’t think you are the only one hearing “no” so reach out to other developers.
  3. Explain clearly what data you need (and why) and be prepared to make your request in writing.
  4. Be an ambassador for Gov 2.0 and help explain it to people since it is so new. It is important to recognize the distinction between data and information. In fact, that is a critical point. The government has data – tons of it – but it is and will remain worthless without ‘doing something’ with it to make it useful.
  5. Encourage other civic software developers – this is a brand new field and there is plenty of room for all of those interested to enter. There is no successful business model to point to (at least not quite yet).
  6. Timing is everything. Be prepared, think ahead and have fun because this is an undefined space where you can make a difference and be apart of a fast-changing cottage industry.

From a personal perspective, Zonability is stretching my boundaries on so many levels. It is like being in a lab where you learn technology, government protocol and product development while coping with the risk of failure. It requires a leap of faith to devote all of your time and personal savings to a new venture, but it is incredibly rewarding – even before seeing a single dollar of the revenue we aspire to create in the future.

To learn more, contact Leigh or follow Zonability on Twitter.

Zonability video overview:

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh and a strategy consultant for CivicActions and NuCivic. He can be reached at luke@govfresh.com. Other projects: GovPress, CityCamp and Agile Government Leadership.

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