Inspectors’ Gadgets Find Illegal Airbnbs

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For a little over a year, New York City has been using sophisticated data-crunching software to known as Palantir to zero in what it sees as illegal hotels.

It seems to be having an effect: in the first ten months of 2014, the rate of inspections for short-term rentals hit a new high: almost 80 a month on average.

“30% more work with the same exact staff,” said Elan Parra, the acting director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement.

“I guess maybe you could call it 'Moneyball' for quality of life violations,” he said.

In the old system, inspectors logged violations individually, on paper. Now, they carry tablet computers on their inspection rounds. At the touch of a fingertip, an inspector can call up a building’s full history of complaints, take pictures for evidence, and immediately upload them to a city database.

“We’re able to cross reference incoming complaints with past violations. And we’re able to concentrate on hotspot areas,” Parra said.

Palantir’s other known clients include the CIA, the FBI, major banks, and the New York City Police Department. The company declined a request for interview. Ironically, Peter Thiel, a well known venture capitalist, is a backer of both Airbnb and the software now being used to crimp its activities, Palantir.

Inspectors are getting information through another source, as well. Last year, New York’s Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, subpoenaed almost half a million records for Airbnb bookings in New York City. Parra confirmed his inspectors are working with Schneiderman.

A spokesman said the Attorney General is referring individual cases to the city for inspection, but has not shared the bulk subpoena records.

In 2013, Palantir posted this video, showing how New York City is using its software to catch Airbnb hosts.