The City of Boston announced last week it is piloting a Web and mobile app that lets citizens track their permit applications online, the latest move by a locality to make government operations accessible by phone or tablet.
Reston, Va., technology firm Qlarion co-designed the app, called Permit Finder, with city employees. When people who apply for permits punch in their building- or business-permit number, the app reports on the status of their request and includes contact information for the city employee handling it.
The city processes close to 100,000 permits each year, generating about $40 million in revenue, said Boston’s deputy chief information officer Matt Mayrl.
In the past year or so, state and local governments have been testing out more single-purpose mobile apps such as this, said Alan Shark, chief executive of the Public Technology Institute, an Alexandria, Va.,-based organization that provides technology consulting services to local government executives and elected officials.
“It’s happening all over the country, even in the smallest jurisdictions, because it doesn’t cost very much” to develop a single app, he said.
To generate app ideas, Boston hosted a two-day hackathon in August with a few specific prompts: design a more transparent permit and licensing tracking system, or code a better search interface for the city’s Web site, for instance. Employees from Qlarion, which already had an analytics contract with Boston, attended.
In about 24 hours, they had designed a prototype for Permit Finder. Permit Finder, which won the event’s “Best Design and Interface” award, is the first hackathon app the city has officially implemented.
Another idea — to create a system that asked users what type of business they wanted to start, and responded with a list of permits they’d need — proved too ambitious for the two-day event, so the city later solicited formal requests for proposals to develop the necessary software.
Permit Finder could free each city employee from having to respond to the 30 to 40 permit status-related calls they receive each week, Mayrl said. “The guy whose job it was to review architectural drawings and construction plans was spending time picking up the phone, and interacting with the customer who didn’t know where their permit was.”
The city was able deploy the app about three months after the prototype because Boston’s permitting database is electronic and mostly automated, Mayrl said — so it had to pull just relevant details for each permit from that database into the app.
“We in government technology spent a lot of time . . . putting in a system to help control and automate processes so that things are done” quickly, he said. “Now we have to focus on how people interact with that.”
At about $5,000 to develop, Permit Finder is inexpensive relative to multi-year, often multimillion dollar contracts the city has with technology giants such as Oracle, which sells the city access to its human resources management software People Soft.
To assess whether the app is worth the small investment, the city plans to host forums to get feedback from individuals and small-business owners, Mayrl said.
Qlarion is one of several technology contractors to pivot from federal customers to smaller governments, said the Public Technology Institute’s Shark.
Single-app contracts with state and local governments are generally much smaller, so a tech company making that transition would have to take on many more small projects to make what they might from one large federal contract. One strategy, he said, is to “come in with something that’s very low-priced, with the idea of using it as a showcase for other [state and local governments] to emulate.”
Qlarion, a 40-employee company whose customers are primarily from the public sector, is taking on more state and local projects to complement existing federal contracts, such as supporting the National Institutes of Health’s hospital performance database. In addition to the app for Boston, Qlarion has applied for technology contracts with the states of Massachusetts and Illinois.
“In the federal government last year we’ve seen a lot of budget uncertainty, and some mixed direction, where it’s harder for small companies to determine their own destiny,” said Adam Roy, Qlarion’s vice president of operations. “We saw a lot of opportunity in the state and local market to . . . be more creative and have more direct influence.”
He added that local and state opportunities can sometimes be attractive because their data is easier to access than federal data, which is often kept in silos.
“State and local has become almost a laboratory for us,” Roy said.