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Boston Overhauls Licensing and Permitting System with Civic Tech

The two-year project will result in a simple and user-friendly app to guide residents through Boston’s 60 varieties of permits.

Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein once opined, “If you can't explain it to a 6-year-old, you don't understand it yourself.”

The adage strikes a chord in Boston, where this month, city officials announced a two-year project to simplify its labyrinthine system for permitting and licensing. Mayor Martin Walsh announced that the open data startup OpenCounter, alongside tech firm Accela, is engineering a simple and user-friendly app to guide residents through Boston’s 60 varieties of permits — 86,000 of which are processed each year with revenues averaging more than $60 million.

“We’ve already made deep improvements to the way the public does business with the city by taking steps to streamline and improve licensing and permitting operations, but there’s always more to be done,” Walsh said in a Dec. 1 release.

Leveraging its expertise in the area, OpenCounter, a San Francisco based company, is uniquely suited to the task. Its offerings funnel the convoluted process for businesses registration into a minimalistic question-and-answer session online. Applicants can learn city requirements, pay fees and calculate processing times -- all based on business location. On the back end, the app also aids municipalities.

“These processes,” Mahoney said, “are all interdependent and when the [permitting and licensing] systems aren’t able to relate the kind of sequence and progression of steps in a process across departments, it makes it much harder, at an administrative level, to provide services efficiently.”

For OpenCounter, winning the contract represents an expansion of its software into other varieties of permitting. Yet Mahoney said its move keeps in sync with the company’s initial vision: to remove the confusion and technical barriers behind government counters — as its namesake implies.

“We’re basically tackling commercial permitting, residential permitting, special events permitting, and other kinds of standalone permits,” Mahoney said. “What we’re trying to do is improve the citizen experience in government.”

Since Walsh took office in January, permitting and licensing has been a top priority for the city. Boston Deputy CIO Matt Mayrl, who oversaw the procurement, said Walsh saw the process as a citizen touch point — evocative at the customer service level — and one that needed to be emblematic of Boston’s commitment to residents.

“I think the mayor heard from businesses and residents themselves that have tried to navigate the process online and found it to be really confusing,” Mayrl said. “It’s really part and parcel to the mayor’s commitment to make sure city hall is open, accessible and inviting.”

Likewise, Mayrl said the project is another mechanism to demystify the process for the average citizen who — unlike large construction companies — might not have the budget to afford help.

“If you’re the small guy, or the homeowner trying to make an improvement, … you don’t have a professional to rely on,” Mayrl said. “We need to start making it easier for that population.”

A caveat to Boston’s procurement methodology, coordinated by its Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT), came in the preparatory work as much as it did in the selection process. To lay a foundation, DoIT first opened up its permitting and licensing data with an application programming interface (API) — software technology that allows websites to share and create data from outside sources online. By installing the API, Mayrl said the city gathered far more project respondents than average — a facet that enabled better selection.

When completed, Mahoney said it’s likely the development in Boston could lead to a new crop of turnkey permitting features for other cities. OpenCounter’s current clients, a majority of cities clustered throughout California and a minority beyond, are gradually accumulating as officials see the software’s potential.

Mahoney said the cities of Palo Alto, Calif., and Indianapolis are scheduled to launch their own versions of OpenCounter in the first quarter of 2015. This year, the company has already added to its services with software called ZoningCheck, a mapping tool that lets entrepreneurs scout city planning code regulations by neighborhoods and addresses.

“We’re getting into these top-tier cities now," Mahoney said, "and it’s a totally different level of exposure."

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.