open data day versus legal codes

Yesterday was International Open Data Day, wherein people from around the world volunteer their time to help make data more accessible. My big lesson from the event was that we still have a long way to go to making the legal code accessible by modern standards.


I was mostly self-interested and used it as an excuse to get my feet wet with GIS software. I worked with Andrew Salzberg on his proposal to encode and map the DC zoning laws into something useful. By the end of the day, we had a first draft of zoning-allowed floor-to-area ratio (FAR) and metro stops. It’s missing zoning overlays (like the one that limits density around Dupont Circle Metro), but it’s already pretty obvious that there is no real relationship between what sort of density (measured by FAR) the zoning code allows and where the Metro stops are.

The big lesson in putting this together is what a lousy job the authors of legal code do in producing anything with much logic to it. Here’s the original DC zoning summary that we had to parse down to make the map. Some zone designations, like C-1, give a FAR directly; others, like the HE-1 through HE-4 zone designations, list lot occupancy and the maximum number of floors. In short, it’s a document that evolved, with no serious concern for consistency or legibility. Continue reading


bringing calm to american discourse

Jeff Gates is an artist among other things. He conceived of this piece of art to bring some calm to the political system in the US these days. He also started the Camomile Tea Party.

I like that the poster is placed downtown in a location that will see many people walking by. Lots of bureaucrats there. Unfortunately, people ignore the ads these days.

Hat tip to

farewell interns

It’s August, and this Washingtonian is joining the exodus. But it’s not just the lifers emptying out offices all over DC. The interns are leaving too. This summer I helped teach the Washington program for Virginia Tech undergraduates – like many programs sponsored by universities in Washington, the VT program includes both coursework and internships. I participated in a similar program as an undergraduate at Notre Dame. I remember being confused and irritated when I learned my internship assignment would be in the Treasury Inspector General’s office, but years later I look back on it as a formative experience. This summer, I saw VT Washington program interns inspired by internships in organizations like the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the City of Alexandria GIS Division. Not always smooth sailing, but I go away with new confidence in the next generation of bureauphiles. Farewell interns!

cab wars, continued

Today’s Washington Post includes an article detailing new taxicab regulations taking hold in DC. In a post last week, I mentioned the contentious history of the rules governing cabs in the district. Today’s article gives the driver’s perspective, noting that DC’s cabs are more plentiful with many more drivers working as independent contractors (whereas cities like New York are dominated by large cab companies). Will reform change all of that as drivers have long feared? Continue reading

a slow train wreck in dc

The administration of DC Mayor Vincent Gray has been a slow train wreck – the farcical allegations of Sulaimon Brown have led from one revelation to another uncovering massive fraud during the the 2010 Gray campaign. It’s enough to bring a bureauphile down. DC news personality Kojo Nnamdi captures the Gray train wreck, placing the whole depressing affair in the context of DC’s stunted political culture.