If only Joe had this tool. Credit: MTV Films

Chrome extensions can do so much more than transform presidential candidates into people with tiny hands. Take this brilliant Chrome extension that uses public 311 data to give you the often-frightening full story on any New York City property.

Simply install the Renter Be Aware app and your Chrome browser becomes a window into the sordid past of that suspiciously affordable two-bedroom walkup. The extension works on a wide range of real estate sites including Streeteasy, Padmapper, Zillow, Zumper, and Trulia. If there are any 311 complaints associated with the property, the listing icon turns red and clicking it will reveal the list of complaints. (It only works for listings, so if you’re checking your current home, look for the old listing.)

Most of the 311 complaints are pretty basic ones about heat or noise. (Actually quite a few are specifically about helicopter noise.) But then there are some more, um, unique reports.

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Like the concerning “Bees/Wasps - not a beekeeper”

Or perhaps “Air, Odor, Sweet From Unknown Source”

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And who can forget “12 Dead Animals”?!?!?!!!!

The app is the brainchild of Aliza Aufrichtig, who attended the recent NYC School of Data conference and learned about New York City’s publicly available trove of 311 data. She realized that an easy way to view complaints could actually be quite helpful for apartment-searchers. Aufrichtig then built the extension in three days with collaborator Hari Mohanraj, and both are both currently at a programming retreat called Recurse Center.

“New York City is filled with so much information in plain sight, but the challenge is to turn that overwhelming stream of information into something meaningful or useful,” she said. “I’m now even more interested in diving into other New York City datasets to help bring to light information that could be really helpful for people.”

In fact, thanks to the work of open data advocates, it would be just as easy to build similar applications using 311 data for other cities. Just a quick search shows that San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston have open 311 data sets, and you can view this “census” of city data to see which other cities have opened up their data to the public.

Sometimes the listing of 311 complaints make for a lovely narrative

Landlords are required to disclose problems with their properties, but they might not mention details like the time there were a DOZEN DEAD ANIMALS there. So a site like this could help renters assert their rights.

But is there such a thing as having too much information? If I spent every day checking the real-time crime map of my neighborhood I’d surely never go outside. Maybe there are some things—SWEET FROM UNKNOWN SOURCE ODORS—you might not want to know. A few brave Gizmodo staffers used the tool to look up their apartments using the extension and luckily no one found anything too disturbing: horns, potholes, homeless assistance, dead trees, and the occasional rat rager.

But I asked Aufrichtig, who has now seen it all, if this changed the way she saw the city. “It’s confirmed,” she said. “New York City apartments are indeed gross.”


Follow the author at @awalkerinLA