The November gathering was brief, a meet-up held in an out-of-the-way building just south of Boston’s South End. Mayor Marty Walsh was visiting the city’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD), a brick tower of offices filled with government workers who administer a slew of building, housing, health, sanitation and safety regulations. Truth be told, Walsh’s attendance was a feat in itself. Officials said a mayor hadn’t made a public address at the ISD in more than 20 years. For Walsh, however, the visit went beyond pageantry — it was about an overhaul that was long overdue.
“Permitting is the filter that all growth and change go through, so we have to get it right,” Walsh said. “What we’re revealing today will continue this progress and take it to another level.”
With that, Walsh introduced Boston Permits & Licenses (BLP), a beta platform that when complete, will let citizens easily apply for various city permits — gas, plumbing, electrical, home construction — reimagining the permitting processes.
What’s more, the tech will be available to other cities once it's rolled into OpenCounter's suite of cloud services.
Joel Mahoney and Peter Koht, co-founders of the city business application startup OpenCounter, have labored for the past year to make it so. What’s daring is the ambition to furnish one of the first permitting and licensing platforms that responds naturally to human input — by targeting permits to project types and project roles.
In his research, Mahoney said people don’t typically start hunting for individual permits. Most often, they think up a project and dig through minutiae to discover which permits and licenses apply. OpenCounter hopes to accommodate the behavior by analyzing Boston’s data to match permits with common projects. Other features let users apply for multiple permits simultaneously — since most projects require more than one — and functionality for permit notifications, tracking, staff comments and online drawing submissions.
Contractors and coordinators might also enjoy the service's set of dashboards. Applicants can add a team of stakeholders to a permit application process, and contractors — electricians, plumbers and the like — can manage all their permitted jobs in a single page.
“The main thing we’re trying to do is improve the user interface in government,” Mahoney said. “If you think about where this process started historically with paper forms, we all know there’s so much we can do to improve the process with interactive tools.”
Boston’s current online system is a case in point. It suffered from a number of hangups, snags like exact address formats for property searches, redundant data entry, and a user experience more akin to PDF forms than a digital service. In a product demo, Boston CIO Jascha Franklin-Hodge described the permitting system as text heavy, slow and just “not very friendly.”
“This is an important step that we’re taking to help fulfill the mayor’s vision in making it easy to do business with the city,” Franklin-Hodge said. “It represents an approach to technology that says we’ve got to put our users at the center of the experiences we build.”
Boston residents can expect to see the new system's first push in ISD kiosks soon, and then online — after beta testing concludes.
Timing for the launch couldn't happen soon enough. In October, the Boston Redevelopment Authority approved $136 million worth of new projects and at its December meeting, approved projects worth $244.2 million to construct 112 residential units. Boston is serving as ground zero for this innovative platform, which Mahoney said will be available to other cities once his team packages it into OpenCounter's suite of cloud services.
“We started out really trying to solve the complexities of prospective business owners, but this project put us squarely in the residential domain," he said. "It’s going to be exciting to see how we can help people like homeowners and contractors through the same kinds of problems.