QR Codes Streamline Permitting in Roanoke, Va.

Building department adds mobile access to online permit center for contractors and customers.

by / November 8, 2012
Photo from Roanoke, Va.

Roanoke, Va.’s population of nearly 100,000 has generated about 1,100 building permits so far in 2012. Ryan McHugh, plans examiner with the Roanoke Building Department, specifies that many of those are combination permits, containing several permits for specialized trade work -- like electrical, plumbing, mechanical, gas and demolition -- within them. The city’s four building inspectors complete between 800 and 1,000 inspections per month.

Contractors and home renovators in Roanoke now have a new option to help expedite their construction project. They used to leave a voicemail message with the city’s Building Department to alert officials that their project had met a milestone and was ready for an inspection. Staff would monitor the voicemail messages and schedule the next business day’s workload for building inspectors accordingly.

Like most cities, however, Roanoke has since added an online permit center, where permit holders can request official sign-off by a city inspector. Visitors to the website can also access permit applications and information, monitor permit status, view the inspection calendar and review historical permit data dating back 10 years.

But the growth in smartphone and tablet use over the past few years led officials to consider simplifying the permitting process even further.

McHugh explained to Government Technology that permit placards are required to be visible on all active building projects in Roanoke. Over the course of a couple months, city staff added quick response (QR) codes to permit placards. Adding this capability, McHugh said, allows quick access to project information and other data available via the website from mobile devices.

The now familiar QR codes, in broad use by manufacturers and retailers, require users to install a free code reader app that allows them to scan the small square bar code for an immediate connection to relevant online information, embedded within the code.

Roanoke officials see the QR codes on permit placards, added last spring, as a valuable service they can provide to their customers. McHugh reports that the main reason customers use QR codes is to request an inspection once they’ve reached a certain stage of their project.

”It's really just another tool that we can utilize, and something to give a little bit of ease to our customers in the community,” he said.

McHugh described a simple development process, leveraging existing software that accesses specific project information. “It'll pull this permit with this street number with this prefix with this location, and anything that's involved with a certain permit will dump into it,” he said. A free online QR code generator incorporates the data into the image that is copied and pasted into the permit placard file.

While QR code use in government seems to be gaining momentum, according to McHugh, Roanoke is leading the charge in Virginia. "We are the only municipality that I know in the state who is doing it,” McHugh said.

The city isn’t tracking traffic to its website generated by the addition of the QR codes. But officials report that contractors and homeowners have taken to the technology. Improvements on the horizon include a visual revamp of the online permit center, which they hope will create a more dynamic experience for all website visitors.

Photo from Roanoke, Va.

Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.