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What if you could use a map to see into the future?

That’s the idea behind “Seattle In Progress,” a new mobile web app that uses construction permits and design proposals to show how the city will evolve in the months and years ahead — leveraging publicly available data from the city, but packaging it up in a much more accessible way.

Ethan Phelps-Goodman
Ethan Phelps-Goodman

The app works around the city, but it’s particularly useful as a way to track new developments in and around South Lake Union and the Denny Triangle, north of downtown Seattle, where Amazon’s rapid growth makes it hard to keep up with all the new buildings in the works.

The app is the brainchild of Ethan Phelps-Goodman, a former Facebook software engineer in Seattle who was also part of the team behind the Hack to End Homelessness. Seattle In Progress is actually a new social impact startup. The app, which has already attracted the attention of city officials, is an initial step in the long-term mission.

“Our goal is to use technology to increase civic participation and build a community around urban development issues,” says Phelps-Goodman via email. “How we grow as a city is the most fundamental question currently being faced by Seattle. And getting it wrong has real consequences — I’m thinking of the strife in San Francisco recently, or the sprawl that defines LA.”

“A big part of my motivation here is getting the tech industry in particular to pay more attention to housing issues,” he explains.

The city provides its own online permitting maps, but users have to take several extra steps to see what a project will actually look like, and the tools are not mobile-friendly. In a post this week on The Urbanist, Phelps-Goodman explained the problem the app is solving.

I pass construction sites every day — it’s hard not to in Seattle — and every time I do, I wonder what’s being built. This question started to bug me more and more: in an era of rapid growth and enormous neighborhood interest in directing that growth, why isn’t it easier to get a clear picture of what’s being planned and built at any particular site? There are land use notice signs, but they give little more than an aerial outline of the building and are quickly covered in graffiti. The City publishes design proposals from the architects, but they’re buried in the depths of the City’s website, where few outside the official planning process will ever see them.

In a past life, I covered commercial real estate in Seattle, and I can attest to how difficult this information can be to access. In an odd way, I actually appreciated that fact at the time, because it led to quite a few scoops, as I spent hours each week digging through city records.  But really, the public deserves to have this information more easily accessible. The available tools from the city have improved over the years, but they’re still not this good.

According to Phelps-Goodman, the app works automatically to collect permit data from, and scrape the design proposals from the Seattle Department of Planning and Development’s website. Features in the works include email notifications for updates on specific sites and neighborhoods, plus the ability to submit official comments to the city directly from the app.

The Seattle in Progress app is available here, working on desktop browsers in addition to smartphone browsers.

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