Innovation can and should be defined simply: making a product or process better, faster, or cheaper to manufacture or operate. Like “disruption,” innovation has now been vastly overused in business, government, and technology, but the need for improvements to balky, dodgy, or broken processes or systems is no less real. Government agencies, regulatory processes, and the technologies that support them are often in dire need of genuine innovation.

That’s especially true for bureaucracies that serve residents who do not possess the power, influence, or funds to hire advocates or circumvent the systems, or those that hinder the economic development that cities and states are relying upon to provide new jobs for those residents. I’ll address the issues surrounding broken e-government in future columns.

ZoningCheck makes municipal code queryable

Today, I’ll focus on ZoningCheck, which launched on July 17, 2014. The new effort is focused upon making it easier for entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and small business owners to find properties in a given city that are zoned for commercial use.

“ZoningCheck emerged from the realization that first hurdle in a broader process is the zoning inquiry,” said Joel Mahoney, a civic technologist, in an interview. “This really is such a simple, important question: where am I allowed to locate my business?”

The beautifully designed, responsive web application is mobile-friendly and elegant, in stark contrast to far too much government software. A user chooses a city (currently limited to about a dozen municipalities in California), a kind of business, and then a specific location or, crucially, potential locations. The result is a personalized map that displays where that type of business is permitted, conditionally permitted, or prohibited in a given municipality.

“As far as we know, this is the first time trying to make queryable,” said Mahoney, who co-founded OpenCounter, which provides business permitting services, after a Code for America fellowship in 2012. “A lot of cities have an interactive zoning map that you can zoom around in, but it’s not responsive to you. If you’re trying to open up a bakery, it doesn’t show you where a bakery is allowed.”

If you visit an online zoning map of Philadelphia, Baltimore, or DC, you can see the truth of that statement. ZoningCheck makes this process easier and is much more friendly to people using mobile devices.

It isn’t the first citizen-created app to attack this problem: Zonability, another civic startup that grew out of winning the Apps for California contest in 2010, enables people to input a given property address and see what’s allowed there. The difference is the approach: instead of starting with an address, a user starts with an intent and can see where it might be allowed. (That kind of personalization, incidentally, is a best practice for data journalism and news apps.)

Both civic apps are a significant improvement over the way the process usually works for entrepreneurs, if they can get traction outside of California. The need and the demand is there.

“The process usually involves a visit to City Hall, and then a 2-3 week wait,” said Mahoney. “Applicants basically have to read raw municipal code to understand where they can go. If the municipal code is like the operating system for a city, then it would be like asking Mac users to read the raw code behind OS X. It’s a crazy way to do this.”

What Mahoney and his partner, Peter Koht, have done with ZoningCheck is to take municipal code, which define zones, and make them queryable for their web application. It’s potentially a big step forward, and one that provides a clear incentive to make municipal codes machine-readable.

“Right now, we’re doing this work ourselves to set up cities in ZoningCheck,” said Mahoney. “Some cities have tabular data in zoning codes, which is a step towards making them machine-readable. Other times, it’s just a narrative, with a long list of uses that are permitted. The quality of data from the city has an impact on how easy it is to do. Fundamentally, if the goal of these laws is to be clear and unambiguous, you have to believe that we can make it more queryable.”

That means ZoningCode — and its users, the general public — could substantially benefit from a growing movement around the US to open up municipal codes. On July 16, 2014, local officials and open government advocates in five major US cities launched a new coalition, the Free Law Founders. The coalition, which includes the general counsel of the DC City Council, where I live and work, is focused on unlocking the laws for exactly this kind of reuse.

Up until ZoningCheck launched, I hadn’t seen a clear economic benefit for this code to be converted to open data, although the civic benefit for every person governed by a law to be able to freely access and read it is crystal clear.

“There isn’t ‘zoning as a service’ yet,” said Mahoney. “No one has done this layer in a comprehensive way. There has been a ton of work on building side, done to international building standards. Builders must adhere to those rules and regulations. Zoning is a local jurisdiction issue. If we can show the value of open data, this can be something to spur cities to format their data to enable the tool. What’s often missing from these standards efforts is that the cities don’t want to do extra work for an academic effort. GTFS worked because there was a clear value for what the standard enabled. We hope that’s what we’ll see here. The value of the data will be clear in the value of ZoningCheck.”

If more codes become queryable and this civic app is adopted by more cities, the former could change.

“I think The State Decoded is a great effort,” said Mahoney. “This is the state incoded: it’s more fundamental than turning PDF into XML. The structure isn’t computable. We have to turn the legal code into computer code. ZoningCheck really is just a reference app. The idea is to eventually build a comprehensive database of zoning laws around the country.”

Such a database, served through the application programming interface that powers ZoningCheck, would have both civic and commercial value. When I asked about the eventual plan for such a database, Mahoney said that they haven’t decided yet.

“Peter and I feel fundamentally that this is public open data. We’re doing a lot of work to organize the data and add value. We haven’t decided on the model. I can certainly imagine selling it as a service to Trulia or others, where we are the zoning layer provider. We are trying to figure out how to do it in a way that’s sustainable. We are not trying to promote the API, because we’re not allowing anyone into it — it’s what powering ZoningCheck.”

The fact that the API is part of how this is built points to one of the complexities of 21st century public services: these two entrepreneurs are creating civic infrastructure from public data, creating a platform. If ZoningCheck takes off — currently, it’s being offered for free to the first 50 cities that subscribe to it through the end of 2015 — then OpenCounter will have to think through how to sustain it. If so, the little startup will find itself squarely in the middle of the debate over APIs and open government. Commercial users may be asked to pay for heavy API use, while the public, media, and nonprofits can use it for free.

Eventually these kinds of data layers could lead to subtle but important changes in how residents and policymakers understand their cities.

“Maybe down the road, boundaries on the map aren’t how we do this,” said Mahoney. “If these laws are how we live together, maybe there’s a better way than static lines. It’s kind of what we did in Boston with Discover BPS, a school search engine. During the project, we built ‘walkshed’ maps. Three years later, Boston ended up changing its policy, using an algorithm to calculate eligible schools based upon a student’s address and grade level.”

Mahoney is long on the cultural effects of these kinds of web applications within government — in other words, not just on their civic utility.

“When you show people these dynamic tools and they’re only used to dealing with blueprints and corkboards, you kind of see lightbulbs coming on,” he said. “On a personal level, I’m excited about how making a zoning computable could lead to rethinking how we do zoning, calculate it, and measure it. That’s in the future. Now, we’re just trying to make this easier for people to use.”