Hackers try to help the city communicate
Rob Mylls was waiting for planning department signatures on a building permit when City Councilmember Hilary Bryant attended the grand opening of his gym, Bike Dojo, in February 2011.
The dual high and low water fountains required by the second agency to review his remodel were already installed. The planning department had told him a single low-standing fountain was adequate to meet handicap accessibility requirements. The city, however, outsourced those overseeing duties to a group in San Jose that had different standards, according to Mylls. He was ready to open shop, but still waiting for final signatures on the permits. A planning department official noticed the grand opening and delivered the signed permit within days.
The frazzled feeling of not having necessary paperwork in hand that Mylls experienced is not unique. Bike Dojo was his first venture into the Santa Cruz business ecosystem, but experienced local entrepreneurs are equally confounded while navigating the city’s bureaucratic process.
Susan Pappas, co-owner of The True Olive Connection downtown, owns two other businesses with partners. Despite this, she says figuring out which department to go to and in which order was difficult as she set about opening True Olive Connection.
“There wasn’t one person that said ‘now that you’ve checked this off, you need to do this, this and this,’” says Pappas. “Every day that I didn’t start construction, I was paying rent.”
Three computer programmers from the San Francisco-based nonprofit Code For America (CfA) are working with the City of Santa Cruz to improve this experience for business owners. As one of CfA’s finalist cities, Santa Cruz is partnering with CfA to create a web-based program akin to Turbotax that would streamline the permitting process and other requirements for opening a business.
Santa Cruz is the smallest community CfA has worked with and CfA fellow Jim Craner says this offers them opportunities they don’t find in larger cities.
“It’s great to be able to just go ask the city manager questions without setting up an appointment six months in advance,” says Craner. “I guarantee that my counterparts are not getting that type access with Rahm Emanuel [in Chicago].”
The programmers held a “hack-athon” brainstorming session at NextSpace Coworking on Saturday, Feb. 25 to explore what Santa Cruzans would like to come out of the partnership. It was one of about 20 events they will hold over the first two months of the project. CfA fellow Ruthie Bendor showed how the software program Wiki Scraper can turn a search of “open taqueria in Santa Cruz” into a list of the permits required to open one as well as how many competitors there are in the area.
Bendor is also focusing on revamping the city’s business license database, which includes 3,767 registered businesses in the city limits. Attendees of the Feb. 25 workshop agreed that identifying your competition in a spreadsheet is not easy, to which Bendor said that Google Refine can turn the tens of thousands of text boxes into latitude and longitude numbers in minutes. That information can be transferred into Google Maps to be more user-friendly.
The effort to bring in these ”white-hat” hackers—people who change software with positive intentions—was led by City Councilmember David Terrazas and Peter Koht, the economic development coordinator for Santa Cruz. Capitola, Scotts Valley, Watsonville and Santa Cruz County helped cover the $150,000 cost of collaborating with CfA for one year. Santa Cruz also won a share of a $1.5 million Google grant the tech giant awards to cities they think can benefit most from the CfA fellows’ work.
The other local governments plan to use the lessons learned to create websites for similar uses in their communities. The new sites in Santa Cruz will not replace or alter how people find information on city websites.
“We want to make city data usable so someone can drag information of a certain type on their own web page,” says Chris Stathis, Santa Cruz’s chief technology officer.
Concrete estimates of how the work will impact the city are impossible to predict, but Koht says that the benefits will be more noticeable here than in the 22 other cities CfA is currently working with.
“In Santa Cruz we’re smaller and nimbler,” says Koht. “The cultural impact can be so much deeper in a small community where you can know most of the city officials by sight or name within a month.”
Visit codeforamerica.org/category/santa-cruz to learn more.