Connecting state and local government leaders
“We want to make it easier for governments to get people to comply with regulations that didn’t use to seem important enough to follow,” CityGrows’ CEO said.
All too often, data officers in city governments have only a single point of access to the data they’re storing: their work computer.
The cloud has changed that, eliminating the need to host software on site along with related server, IT staff and scaling costs.
Cloud-based software offered by startups like CityGrows doesn’t need to be manually updated or backed up on a computer.
“We can truthfully say our program targets the entire playing field of local governments because we’re cloud-hosted,” CityGrows CEO Stephen Corwin said in a phone interview with Route Fifty.
That’s a crucial selling point for a product that aims to standardize typical government processes like permitting and licensing by automating them and then cloning templates for other states and localities to use.
Many such processes remain paper-based and fragmented across localities. Every city offers a dog-licensing permit, but the way they go about issuing it differs between municipalities.
Instead of repeating the effort, if New York City’s building permit process works, another city can clone it using CityGrows’ GitHub-inspired ecosystem.
Corwin started by designing a web scraper that pulled data from the city of Los Angeles and geocoded permits so users could figure out which ones were in their area. Prior to that, the city produced a biweekly PDF listing every permit L.A. provided.
From there, Corwin set his sights on other datasets having to do with development permitting and environmental impact reports.
CityGrows’ core product if free to use to map out processes like the hiring of a local government employee in minutes. Where the startup makes its money is payment processing of things like building permit fees on behalf of cities, taking a percentage of credit card purchases through the cloud platform.
About 20 jurisdictions are currently playing around with the platform, Corwin said. CityGrows only launched in 2016, when Corwin entered it in Santa Monica, California’s Hack the Beach hackathon competition.
Winning gained Corwin access to Santa Monica’s staff. He began working with the Mobility Division of the Planning & Community Development Department on an “operations rewire” of Worksite Transportation Plan submissions.
The plans are an annual requirement for local employers intended to reduce the number of commuters driving alone to work—Santa Monica’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. CityGrows redesigned the 30-day, paper-based process involving credit card forms into a 7-day affair that tracks each plan’s progress, communicates with the public and visualizes the data.
“As a result, we have a simpler, intuitive, cloud-based platform. One based on performance metrics, transparency, and embedding technology expertise within the organization,” Jack Moreau, a transportation management specialist with the city of Santa Monica, said in a statement. “The success of our program was made possible through a partnership between the public and private sectors and the specializations native in each organization.”
Different cities have different processes they want to automate, Sacramento focusing on RAILS Grant reporting transparency—how grants progress and where the money is spent.
“The biggest problem with the way open data has been approached to date is it’s not necessarily connected to a data source, so it takes a lot of maintenance,” Corwin said. “It’s nobody’s job to put it into Socrata, but we can surface data in real time in the same place we’re collecting it to guarantee it’s standardized.”
The cloud makes that possible.
Another process CityGrows is shopping around is managing drone permits.
“We want to make it easier for governments to get people to comply with regulations that didn’t used to seem important enough to follow—from permits to manage Airbnbs to drones,” Corwin said. “Maybe the fine is not steep enough to make someone want to go through the process, but the easier it is to comply, the more likely the city is to collect revenue that comes from these processes.”
The cloning of processes is new to state and local governments, Corwin said, but it’s worked well for software and other industries.
“It’s not a common practice in government, but we think it will be shortly,” Corwin said.
Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.