Civic coding competitions have become a mainstay on the gov-tech landscape as a way for software developers to hone their skills and a means for cities to tap needed capabilities on the cheap.
Do these exercises yield practical results? In Santa Monica, Calif., the answer is a clear yes. In 2016 CityGrows
won the Hack the Beach event with a suite of tools designed to improve access and visibility into government operations. A year later, the city has reaped tangible rewards.
“Santa Monica is working to make government more responsive, more accountable and more transparent — that's the inspiration for Hack the Beach,” said City Manager Rick Cole. “CityGrows gives us the platform to provide better digital services, and collect and share the data we need to deliver results quicker, faster and better."
CityGrows offers a workflow and transparency platform to help local governments reduce paper-based workflows and migrate to digital processes. The Santa Monica Transportation Management Division working with the CityGrows team set out to tame a sprawling and labor-intensive data-gathering task, involving small businesses that are required to submit detailed transportation management plans
aimed at reducing peak-hour solo commute trips for employees.
“We started out with something fairly complex,” said CityGrows co-founder Catherine Geanuracos. “It was a really long form, the standard government PDF where you had to enter the same thing in four different places, where you had the information in different fonts in different places.”
With about 30 plans a month being filed, city workers often found themselves spinning their wheels: Lots of calls and emails back and forth with business owners uncertain about the status of their paperwork.
At the same time, valuable data was going to waste. “They were copying these paper forms and storing them in a database, but each year they would overwrite information from the year before. If they wanted to measure progress or gauge comparative metrics, the most they could do is go back one year, so it was not exactly transparent,” said Stephen Corwin, CityGrows' co-founder.
Over the course of the past year the city has implemented a new system, one that is inherently digital and fundamentally transparent. More than just taking the paper form and putting it on the Web, city staff took the opportunity to re-envision the entire workflow.
“The whole goal of putting this online was to respect people’s time and so we took that one step further, asking: Do we need this piece of information? Why do we ask for this two times? It forced a reexamination of the process itself,” Geanuracos said. “Putting this online created an opportunity to look at the original ordinance and think about how to streamline this for business.”
As soon as the process went from paper to digital
the median processing time dropped from one month to 14 days. As government users have further refined the system internally, that number has dropped to nine days, Geanuracos said.
Those gains come largely as the result of structural improvements to the process.
“Typically when people send something into government, it feels like you are sending it into a black hole. We wanted to change that experience, to make that inside process of government more transparent,” Geanuracos said. “Now they are kept in the loop via email notifications. If the government needs your signature, you get an email, and if you don’t go and sign right away, you get a reminder. So things don’t just sit around waiting for action.”
The filing process itself has been made more transparent, with the digital system showing businesses exactly where theyare in the process. "They fill in the form, then they can upload their plan, then they make a payment," said Corwin. "There’s a final review and they are done. It’s all laid out.”
In addition to smoothing out a cumbersome bureaucratic exercise, the new platform also is generating higher-quality data for the system — and the city — through the use of validated forms.
“If you put in an email address we verify it looks like an email address. If you put in a phone number we verify it looks like a phone number,” Corwin said “If some phone numbers have periods and some have dashes, things get really difficult. You don’t know if you can rely on that data. So we implement these validated forms to show that things are what they are supposed to be.”
The result: greater accuracy in filings and a cleaner database, which may be helpful for future uses, now that the city is retaining information it used to discard annually.
Internally, city officials have new ways to interact with that data. The platform offers automatic open data visualizations to deliver critical information quickly.
“If you are submitting a location and we know you are typing an address, we geo-code that and put it on a map. If you fill in a multiple choice field we know to put that in a pie chart,” Corwin said.
The point is to have not just data, but usable data in an accessible format. “People don’t need a ridiculous number of dashboards, if we can give them some basic insights right out of the gate. We want to give people an automatic taste of what is possible, and then they can go and dig deeper if they want a more elaborate visualization,” he said.
The platform also incorporates an online payment capability, which developers say they would like to see go citywide at some point in the future.
Their immediate next goal is to help the city streamline its program of community mini-grants. It’s a very different process, but the ends are ultimately the same. “It’s about using automation and transparency to collect and review these grants, to understand the work that the funds support and also to make that visible to the community,” Geanuracos said.