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Track down a building's code violations, noise complaints, or that nagging history of chemical contamination.

For the wealth of information available on rental sites like Craigslist, or real-estate platforms like Trulia, there's a certain category of crucial information that you just can't get from charming property write-ups, sunlit photos, or even walk-throughs. Namely, all the bad stuff: code violations against the landlord for broken plumbing or faulty heat, noise complaints, that nagging history of chemical contamination.

It's about to become much easier, however, to get your hands on this information. We wrote last week about the importance of municipal data standards, a supremely wonky-sounding idea with some very practical implications. These common data formats used across cities have already brought us transit directions on Google Maps, and restaurant inspection scores on Yelp reviews. Now, Code for America, a half-dozen cities and several private companies are rolling out a third national data standard for everything you'd want to know about the health and safety of your (current or future) home: the House Facts Data Standard.

The new data format, created with officials in San Francisco's Department of Public Health, will enable cities to publish updated information on property owners and buildings in a way that third-party apps and real-estate platforms can consume. The massive real-estate listing site Trulia has already agreed to import the information, as have the consumer platforms Lovely, PadMapper, and Civic Insight. In addition to San Francisco, five other cities are lined up to begin releasing their data under the new standard within the next two months: Las Vegas; Kansas City; Olathe, Kansas; Bayview, Wisconsin; and Gary and Bloomington, Indiana.

A mock-up of what this data will look like on Trulia.
Lovely, Padmapper, and Civic Insight
Lovely, Padmapper, and Civic Insight

"Consumers will get to see what the city knows about each property," says Jack Madans, the community manager for Code for America. This means, if you live in one of these cities (or others that will likely follow), you may find next to an apartment listing online a list of code violations for poor ventilation, or mold. In San Francisco, the data is coming from the Department of Building Inspection, the Department of Health, and the Fire Department, although it will likely come from agencies that are structured differently in other cities.

"This is where it gets really important," Madans says. "There are the superficial characteristics that I think consumers will want to know about when it comes to noise, or inconveniences like broken plumbing. But then there are also the things that are more hidden hazards here, the chemical contaminants, the lead."

Because of the potential health impacts, Madans suggests this may be the most important data standard that's been developed yet. Sure, it's great to plan transit trips on Google Maps. And the health-inspection standard will hopefully ward off cases of food poisoning. But we make few decisions more intimate and consequential than where to live. And on this front, cities are ideally positioned to help us make smarter decisions.

"I think what we’re getting at is that there’s a new standard for openness," Madans says. "And that new standard for openness is that data is truly open when it can easily travel to places where people are already making decisions."

The health-inspection standard is already spreading from San Francisco. On Monday, Louisville announced that it would be the second city to start using the format. There's every reason to believe that this House Facts standard will spread, too. Soon, Madans predicts, people will start looking for civic data to help inform all kinds of decisions. "They won’t just rely on folklore and anecdotes," he says, "they’ll want to ground their decisions s in the data they know the city has."

Top image: Ira Shumejko/Shutterstock.com

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