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Chicago, Indianapolis Bet Big on User-Centric Design

Both cities are overhauling digital platforms and installing kiosks to bring intuitive, easy-to-use services to residents and businesses.

Paying a water bill or filing a business license fee in Chicago is getting easier. The city has organized payments under one platform and launched the application on 50 new kiosks to be arranged around the city — in locations as varied as police stations to libraries — with the aim of making certain transactions with Chicago quicker and more seamless. The kiosks are expected to roll out this summer.
“We’re creating a new ‘user-centric’ experience for consumers, and de-couple what goes on in the city from the agency hierarchy that is so often projected onto constituents,” said Mike Duffy, CEO and founder of CityBase, the software company leading the project. The platform’s broad applicability can be thought of as “one application expressed through as many channels as possible,” he said.
“And even the kiosks — or point of sale — are being run from a cloud-based application. For example, a receipt is generated in the cloud a split-second before being printed at one of those in-person terminals,” said Duffy.
Central to the design is a payment system that is accessible and serves all populations, including residents who don’t have a bank account or are unfamiliar with technology. Generally speaking, these residents pay city bills with cash and in person. Chicago handles about 1.7 million “walk-in transactions” every year, which represents about a third of the total number of payments transacted with the city.
“From inception, a central tenet of CityBase has been to use technology to grow equity in cities, and support the most challenged demographic in our city,” said Duffy.
Officials in Chicago could not be reached for comment on the project.
The company also worked with the city of Indianapolis to create the site, which brings numerous city departments under one platform, with the goal of making interactions more user-friendly. The site launched in May 2017.
“The new site is definitely more vibrant, it also focuses heavily on the user experience,” said Abbey Brands, chief communications officer for Indianapolis, adding that the site includes 25 digital services. “Agencies and departments are represented the same way, content and service cards are represented the same way, and it’s mobile-friendly,” she said.
Individuals can apply for property tax deductions, a process that previously could take up to five to 10 business days, but now can be completed and approved in as little as 20 minutes, according to Brands. “We also developed a deduction search, which allows homeowners to look up their parcels and see which deductions are currently applied — something an individual would have had to call and ask about or dig up,” she said. 
For both Chicago and Indianapolis, CityBase’s goal is to smooth interactions between residents and government, transforming what had been bureaucratic processes into something that’s both intuitive and easy to conduct. 
“We, like many firms, have a broad vision for what can be. And I view the work that we’re doing today as laying the foundation to unlock future functionality,” said Duffy. “Our vision is to bring commonality to government interactions, so that we can unlock potential.”  
According to Brands, Indianapolis is looking beyond what the website can do. “It’s rethinking the way we serve our citizens and businesses and redesigning processes agency-by-agency,” she said.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.