Why the Citiscape App Wants to Put Building Inspectors Right on Your Phone
The next frontier in New York City’s real estate market isn’t Queens or Harlem; it’s your phone. In a city—and an industry—seemingly glutted with entrepreneurs, the next big revolution won’t be any particular building project itself, but rather technological innovations that transform the very way projects are built.
The recently released Citiscape app leverages new technology to illuminate and streamline the area of the business that has long frustrated New Yorkers with its opacity: building regulations. Officially launched on April 17th, the app is intended to bridge the gap between information that is technically available to New Yorkers and information that is truly accessible. It does so by compiling all publicly available DOB and ECB data into one easy-to-navigate interface. Citiscape sends users push notifications about any updates to their selected buildings, provides milestones that show how far along in the permit process they are, and syncs important dates and deadlines with the user’s calendar. It is, above all, a source of knowledge—a tool meant to empower entrepreneurs and average citizens alike.
The app can trace its family tree to the technological overhaul of the public sector. At the end of the 80’s and beginning of the 90’s, NYC’s Department of Buildings (DOB) started to digitize their records. New York City lived through this technological transformation and the changes have been profound. With the advent of NYC’s Open Data for All law in 2012, the DOB began making all their data available to the public as well. It’s this open data that fuels the Citiscape app.
The digitization of DOB operations is part of a broader shift towards smoother service for New Yorkers who interact with the agency. But while the DOB has made significant progress in this respect, the constituents who could most benefit from these changes have proven rather hard to reach. Somepeople in the construction industry think that the New York Department of Building is just delaying them on purpose. That’s not the case. The DOB really takes tons of time revising and checking things. But the main problem is communication, as more information is passing between the DOB and public, and sometimes they are not on the same wavelength.
The Citiscape team aims to do just that, and fix what is broken. Their goal in developing the app is clear: “Citiscape was not intended for the professional,” says Khaykina. Although developers and contractors can obviously make good use of it, the Citiscape team was focused on other demographics—newcomers to the real estate business, first-time homeowners, or even tenants who just want to know what their landlord is up to. “These are the people who are not educated in the ways of the industry. These are the people who need us the most,” says Olga Khaykina, Citiscape COO.
The team’s passion for the underdog infuses every corner of the app’s development. When it comes to questions of construction site safety, for example, Alex Lotovsky, Citiscape CEO, worries that current enforcement methods are not effective at actually improving safety for the most vulnerable workers—and might inadvertently be playing a role in squeezing out small businesses from New York’s construction industry as a whole. He cites the DOB’s construction sweep last month, which resulted in 322 stop-work orders and 1,081 violations, as an example of good intentions leading to unintended consequences. “The violations were issued to everybody. The problem, though, is that the small developer and the large developer are getting the same size penalty,” says Lotovsky. “It’s killing small construction businesses in New York City and only leaving room for big developers. There’s no space for the little guy.”
The issue comes down to the numbers: while fines are a nuisance for large operations, they can prove to be a fatal blow to low-budget ones. The result is an industry dominated more and more by a few major-league players who can afford to absorb the costs of navigating regulations.
Lotovsky and Khaykina hope that the Citiscape app can help reverse this trend. “It’s like when the cops pull you over while driving,” explains Lotovsky. “They can always find some reason to give you a ticket, right? Construction sites are the same way. There’s no such thing as being 100% perfect—especially for small, mom-and-pop contractors.” In this sense, the Citiscape app acts as a sort of Waze for builders: by sending real-time updates from the DOB right to people’s phones, the app alerts users in advance if an inspection is forthcoming. And, like Wazers reminded to slow down when they know a police checkpoint is approaching, Citiscape users will have an incentive to fix safety issues before they escalate.
At its core, Citiscape is betting on the efficacy of prevention over punishment—and the idea that, if laws are easier to comply with, people are more likely to actually try to comply. “Every single stop-work order and every single violation could have been avoided if the contractor or developer knew that this was happening,” says Khaykina. “Citiscape can give them that power.”