Historic Open Source Approval for re:code LA's WebCode Toolkit

on March 31, 2016

In a first for the City of Los Angeles, the City Council earlier this month officially approved the Department of City Planning’s proposed open source release of portions of the Web-based Zoning Code System. The releases, known as the WebCode Toolkit, are anticipated to be available in the summer of 2016 through the online software repository GitHub.

The WebCode Toolkit will mark the City of Los Angeles’ first open source software contribution, complementing Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Open Data platform. According to Peter Marx, the Mayor’s Chief Technology Officer, “this act is much more significant than it might seem: it is the first time we have gone through a formal process to take software developed for the City and contribute it to the open source community.”

WebCode is a key deliverable in one of the Department of City Planning’s largest initiatives to date: re:code LA, a comprehensive revision of LA’s outdated Zoning Code. Developed by consultant Urban Insight in collaboration with the project team, WebCode is a first-of-its-kind system designed to make it easier for users to browse, search, and download the new zoning regulations. It offers a customized, interactive experience, providing all relevant zoning information for an address, parcel, or use specified by the user.

A screenshot of beta Zoning Code homepage

Designed to make the Zoning Code easier to navigate and understand, WebCode was inspired in part by popular tax software. City Planner Erick Lopez pondered that if it was possible for applications like Turbo Tax to make the Federal tax code easy to navigate, we should be able to do the same with our City’s Zoning Code. The Zoning Code, however, was last comprehensively rewritten in 1946, and the many layers of complexity added over the years meant that an interactive system would only be possible if it was coordinated with a complete rewriting and reorganizing of the Zoning Code. That opportunity arose when re:code LA was officially launched in 2013.

James VanGerpen, Director of Systems with the Planning Department states, “if we want to reach more people in our diverse City, we need to do so through easily accessible documents and information. The new WebCode system leverages the latest technology to improve the way we present zoning information to the public. Our hope in releasing the WebCode Toolkit is that other jurisdictions use this technology to enhance their own codes, and hopefully improve upon it and contribute back.”

The WebCode Toolkit will enable any member of the public to make reports or static documents searchable and interactive on the web. The Toolkit has huge potential to enable other jurisdictions and members of the public (universities, students, tech community, etc.) to offer any document in a customized online format. In making the Toolkit available through open source releases, the City not only helps spur innovation, but also creates opportunity for potential improvements made by others to be contributed back into the WebCode Toolkit, which could allow the City to incorporate future enhancements.

Chris Steins, CEO of Urban Insight, shares from a technological perspective, "we find it so impressive that the Department of City Planning and the City of Los Angeles are taking a leadership position to make a world-class technology tool available to other cities and counties that want to publish their zoning code using a modern web-based approach.”

Technically, the WebCode Toolkit will contain the core functionality that allows text and image content to be extracted from an Adobe InDesign file and then imported into a Drupal database for publishing on a website.

The initial project release will include:

  • InDesign EPUB export script(s)
  • Drupal EPUB import module
  • Technical documentation

After the WebCode Toolkit is released, a sample front-end display interface and visual walk-through will be built and included into the open source project. The update will showcase how to best use the WebCode Toolkit once you download it.

Visit recode.la and sign up to receive updates on release dates and the overall project.

Here is a sneak peak of the WebCode Toolkit.