Bostonians, like city residents around the country, will gripe about what they feel is wrong with city government. When Martin J. Walsh was campaigning for mayor last year, he heard many complaints and concerns from residents, but one in particular stood out: the city’s online permitting system. For homeowners and business owners alike, the system was too complicated and nobody liked it.

When Walsh became mayor of Boston, he made it clear that technology would play a key role in making the city operate better, and one of the first projects he wanted revamped was, you guessed it, the city’s permitting system.

Over the weekend of August 9, the city held the first of its kind HubHacks Challenge to design a better online permitting process. Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology and the Office of New Urban Mechanics held the challenge in the city’s Innovation District with about 50 developers from the area’s tech community showing up to try their hand at creating an online permitting system that works.

Mayor Walsh called the challenge a “collaborative solution to an issue with broad implications,” in a prepared statement. Residents and businesses file 100,000 applications annually for more than 40 different kinds of permits that are issued by the city through its enterprise system, making it a mission critical operation for Boston.

Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the city’s new CIO, described the permitting system as convoluted and difficult to navigate. “People weren’t getting good service from the city of Boston,” he said, adding that the hackathon was a way to take a short window of time to use a more agile way of developing a software solution. “It forces you to focus on the essentials of the problem. It doesn’t deliver big enterprise software, but it shows how people can make the user experience better.”

The developers and hackers spent the weekend figuring out the problem with the existing system, which included watching a video of end users describing their frustrations with the permitting system. Using a newly built API (application programming interface), the developers had to come up with a practical but simple way to move people through the application process. Some of the problems the hackers had to overcome were figuring out which permit a person needed, finding their address of record and knowing where they were in the application process.

The winning entry, called “Civic Panda,” redesigned the logic behind the process to make the experience more intuitive; followed the 80/20 rule of not trying to solve everything, just the most important problems faced by the majority of users; and created a solution that dealt with not just getting a new permit, but also monitoring existing permits.

Boston’s deputy CIO, Matthew Mayrl, said he was impressed by the enthusiasm and creativity of the developers who participated in the hackathon. “There’s a real appetite in the developer community to work on projects that are going to have a real impact at the end of the day. City government is a great environment for doing that,” he said.

One of the problems city governments around the country face is keeping up with the latest in Web technology and design, and the smartest approaches to creating a good user experience. The city felt that a hackathon would be a good way to apply the best in Web development to one of the city’s major pain points. “By letting developers engage with us through the API, it opens the door to a fresh approach to solving a business problem for the city, “said Franklin-Hodge.

"We don’t have all the answers to the problems of government. That’s the basic lesson of a hackathon," he said. “You have to be a little humble and admit you’re not sure of the right path forward. We can tell developers what the problem is and give them some tools. But, in the end, we need their help.”

Tod Newcombe  |  Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.