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Boston Zoning Board of Appeal Decisions Archive

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Update: Since I wrote this, I have made lots of changes but the latest is still at the same link!

At this weeks’ PLAN East Boston kickoff, someone said “but they approve everything” about the Boston Zoning Board of Appeals. I wondered how true this was.

Zoning decisions are made available as PDFS and aggregated metrics are not offered, so I decided to generate and make available a plain HTML archive with aggregated metrics.

You can find it herehttps://nattaylor.com/eastboston/boston-zoning/

East Boston has had 127 appeals since the start of 2017 (30% more appeals than the next highest neighborhood) and 91% of them are approved!

Zoning Before and After
Zoning Before and After

It is generated with a multistep process that involves some messy PHP scripts I wrote.

First I parsed the decisions from https://www.boston.gov/departments/inspectional-services/zoning-board-appeal-decisions into tabular data, using a lame script called process-site.php

Next, I parsed the PDF meeting minutes from https://www.boston.gov/departments/inspectional-services/zoning-board-appeal#meeting-minutes.  A few were raster image PDF, so I OCRed them with VietOCR to prepare them.  For the text PDFs, I converted them to HTML with pdftohtml and a command like pdftohtml -noframes mypdf.pdf.

Once I had processable text, I messily tokenized it on keywords like “Vote:” and then sussed it into a structured format with process.php.  There is a single file mode which produces tabular output to be merged with the results from process-site.php and there’s multi-file mode which processes HTML results for use in the final step.

The final step produces the HTML Archive with out.php.  Each case is deep-linkable.

The result is a single file that works on all devices, is shareable by URL and simple to reference. (“Why GOV.UK content should be published in HTML and not PDF” goes into great detail about all the benefits of HTML.)

When new meeting minutes are published, it will be just a few clicks to update the archive!

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