The zoning laws for DC are posted online. They’re typed documents clearly made on a computer. But… they’re printed out, then scanned in, and the scanned images converted to PDFs. Here’s an example.

What’s wrong with this? PDFs made directly from the computer contain their text in computer-readable form. Search engines can read them and make them searchable. Scanned printouts, on the other hand, just contain letter-shaped blobs of ink which we can read, but a search engine can’t. As a result, none of the DC zoning codes are easily found by searching.

The Office of Zoning has a special search interface, powered by Google, which clearly has the original text available to search (and you can click on a result to see it in text. However, this interface only shows you a single page, either PDF or text. What if you want the adjacent page? Too bad, you have to go elsewhere on the site to find the whole chapter manually. Plus, when I tried to access it yesterday, it was down completely.

This is stupid, and makes no sense. If the Office of Zoning simply posted regular PDFs made directly from the computer like everyone else, one could find the regulations using the regular Google or another search engine. Better yet, they could post them as HTML which is even easier to read. It’d also be simple to use longer documents in their internal search instead of special one-page fragments. But they have to do it the hard way. Too bad.

Tagged: dc, law, technology

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.