The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Georges Clement, Executive Director of JustFix.nyc, a New York-based nonprofit organization that builds online tools to provide New York City tenants with information about their building and landlord. Clement discussed open data and the importance of centering accessibility when building new products.
This interview has been edited.
Gillian Diebold: What do you see as the relationship between open data and housing justice?
Georges Clement: I guess I’ll start with our tool called Who Owns What. That tool has two value propositions. One is to look up any residential address in New York City, and you will see all of the relevant data about that building aggregated in one place. So that includes a history of code violations, evictions, and the number of rent-stabilized units. And the second value is that it maps that building to, or connects that building to, other buildings in the city that are owned or managed by the same companies. And so we are able to basically pierce the corporate veil and connect buildings that are each technically owned by their own LLCs. That is really helpful in terms of mapping out ownership portfolios and understanding and being able to do lots of different kinds of analysis to understand trends across neighborhoods, across landlord portfolios, etc. I say all of that because none of that would be possible without open data. So we are large consumers of open data. New York City is quite progressive when it comes to open data. And we look at five-plus various data sets that are published through New York City’s open data portal that are relevant to housing. And we’re able to utilize all of those datasets, in service of building out actionable tools for individual tenants to learn about their rights, learn about their buildings, and their landlords can take action, as well as utilize that data for analysis for policy change to increase tenant protections and further the goals of the housing justice community in New York.
Diebold: What types of data does your organization use?
Clement: There’s open data from a variety of city agencies that we access and incorporate into who owns what and our other tenant digital services. There is also scraping of other datasets just to pull out other data points. And there’s also data that we access and analyze that is generated by the usage of our tools that we look at in an anonymized and aggregated way in order to incorporate that to improve our services and also to generate other kinds of analysis.
Diebold: Are city governments equipped to use the data they collect, and how can they improve?
Clement: New York City is quite good about publishing open data. A number of folks in city agencies actually use our tools. We are basically taking open data from the city, we are analyzing it and repackaging it in a different way, and then that’s used by city agencies. So there’s an increasing competency among city agencies in data analysis. And with Eric Adams’ administration coming in, I know that he’s very focused on how city agencies can build better dashboards, how there can be citywide dashboards that are both for internal operations and improvements and efficiency, as well as constituent-facing, citizen-facing dashboards as well. In addition, we work very closely with housing justice groups and housing data analysts. Other cities struggle much more with both access and reliability of those same kinds of open data sources. So there’s massive room for improvement in other cities in terms of what they publish, how frequently they publish it, how clean it is, etc.
Diebold: How do you deal with accessibility issues, i.e. ensuring your products reach the intended populations?
Clement: So a couple of things. One is we care a lot about accessibility. I think about accessibility in a number of ways. One is accessibility from a usability standpoint. And so we think about that in the design and engineering, product development process, to ensure that things are able to be used, like on-screen readers, etc. There’s language accessibility, and so trying to make things available in Spanish across all of our tools, and for some of our tools additional languages as well to increase digital access.
All of our tools are optimized to be used on mobile phones, on smartphones, so you’re not required to have a desktop or tablet in order to access our services. And when possible, we build out SMS versions of our services. So we have a few different tools that you can access just strictly through text messaging. And then the last thing that I’ll say is we work with a really extensive network of community-based organizations, legal advocacy groups, local elected officials, etc. And they can help to support tenants who lack tech access. So an advocate that’s doing door-to-door outreach can support people in navigating our services. I think those are the high-level elements.
Diebold: What’s next for your organization?
Clement: One is expanding the use cases and types of renters and prospective renters that can utilize our services and expanding the issue areas that we address in the New York City rental context. So, for example, prospective tenants encounter a lot of challenges when they tried to find housing, including rampant discrimination, source of income discrimination, and otherwise. Source of income discrimination basically means voucher discrimination. And so we want to build more tools to serve more of that particularly vulnerable population.
The other is that we are starting to do work in Los Angeles, and we want to continue to expand that work and see how we can support the housing justice movement and other cities across the country.