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