City hopes local techies can fix broken permitting system

The city IT department plans a hackathon next month to let developers use a new gateway into city systems to build an online permitting system that might replace the current confusing system that often forces people who want to set up a restaurant or add a porch to their homes to spend months battling paperwork and bureaucracy - and sometimes make trips to offices miles apart.

HubHacks will be held Aug. 9 and 10 at District Hall, in the heart of the Innovation District.

Individual residents, business owners, and contractors file nearly 100,000 applications annually for any of more than 40 different permits that the City issues through its citywide permitting software system. In his first six months in office, Mayor Walsh tasked his administration with comprehensively improve the permitting process, streamlining the underlying business processes, providing more transparency, and offering a higher-level of customer service. ...

At HubHacks a new application programming interface (API) will be unveiled, which will allow Boston’s tech community the ability to create custom applications that feed directly into the City’s permitting system. Participants in the event will take on one of four challenges, each of which represents current pain points in the permitting process.

Specifically, hackers will be able to tackle:

  • Which Permits Do I Need?
  • What’s My Address of Record? Every project needs to be linked to an address in the City’s master database. In the current system, finding your address is more difficult than it should be. The City’s new online system needs a clear way to search addresses and suggest alternatives, getting it right the first time.
  • Can I Apply for That Permit Online? Developers will be challenged to provide a very practical solution using the City’s new API to create a simple online and/or mobile application for Street Occupancy permits required to block space for a moving truck.
  • Where Am I in the Approval Process?

Ed. note: After having spent several years covering licensing-board hearings, probably the single stupidest thing I've seen has been the procession of immigrants cited by police for not having food-serving licenses - they knew enough to go to ISD down in Newmarket Square for their health and occupancy permits, but ISD for years refused to tell these people they also needed a separate license from the licensing board in City Hall.



Free tagging: 



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And of course the city schedules the hackathon the same weekend as the worlds largest hacker convention, Defcon.n00bs

Not really a problem

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Folks going to Defcon are tightly focussed on issues of online security. Although datasec will certainly need to be addressed before any apps created at Hubhacks are released to the public, it's not a primary concern at the sandboxing stage of development

Hey, yeah!

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You know what I enjoy writing? Tedious scheduling software for a municipal entity so incompetent that they don't trust their own in-house talent to write it.

You know what makes it even BETTER? Writing that code on spec, on the dim chance that I someday get paid for it! Or whatever "Recognition will be announced later" means.

All right, Mayor Walsh! Let's get coding, brah!


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...while I'm complaining about this absurd project (which I assume some enthusiastic young thing in the Innovation District® will undertake, because programmers): the city went to all the trouble to expose an API (which probably means poorly-thought-out REST services, which I'll bet you $1 will have awful, glaring security holes that will result in lolbutts Inc. being registered at City Hall), but they couldn't be bothered to write a simple UI on top of it, as a stopgap between now and whatever project gets chosen at the Hackathon? If you've written the API, and it doesn't suck, you've done most of the heavy lifting. Just write a quick HTML form and put it on the damned city website so that restauranteurs can stop getting in trouble with the ISD.


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The city has an an excellent IT department. A lot of techies move around and most of these guys started in the private sector You don't know every detail surrounding this but it's just so easy to have the typical knee-jerk reactio

This concept is great, but

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This concept is great, but seems to be lacking execution. I'd love to see more governments solve technology problems this way, but with real, serious cash on the line.

Cash? You mean like with

Cash? You mean like with taxpayer dollars?? Wait, we need to spend money if we want government to function? I thought if we just eliminated the "waste" it would mean that we could run a 100% efficient system with zero cost.

what they're doing is pretty common

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I often see companies invite the public (especially students who don't know any better) to hacking sessions or marathons, where the programmers working for free (well, pizza and energy drinks) are simply furthering the company's commercial interests by building things that the company wants built, and giving the appearance of enthusiasm in whatever the topic is.

If you were an MBA at the company, wouldn't it be a boost to your career to pull this off? You save a ton of money that can spend on call girls and coke.

Not all working for free is stupid. For example, many legitimate open source projects are great to contribute to. But I never participate in one of these freebie hacking sessions run by someone who should be paying.

The company (or city hall) should do its job, and when it needs to employ more programmers to provide its basic functions, it should employ them. Find the money by hiring fewer nephews and campaign contributors for no-show jobs if you have to.

Old trick

Back in the day when Steve Ballmer offered me a job at Microsoft, it was clear they sought out geeks from around the country with limited social skills who knew nobody in Washington state. Give them free soda and they practically live at work. That and they toy computers they developed for (at the time) in assembly language for an awful architecture, turned me off.

Hackathon goals

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Except that the hackathons sponsored by governments are more open ended - coming up with a website design, or creating apps related to volunteering or crowdsourcing or public transportation. It's unusual to see a hackathon for a core city function like permitting. That would be like Microsoft holding a hackathon for rewriting the Windows kernel.

Stone Age

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I am sure that ISD and City ITs have no contact with each other since there are no computers in ISD.


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I'm sure there are computers...

You know.. maybe some IBM PS/2 Model 25 PCs with built-in monitors running PC DOS 3.3 on a token ring network. OR MAYBE they've upgraded to OS/2 2.0 , which came out about the same time Mr anti-technology Menino took office.

Computerized permitting at

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Computerized permitting at ISD has existed since 2009 and there is daily contact between the city's ITS and ISD

Will the techies know to

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Will the techies know to insert a field to pay off the right councilor or inspector to botch it all up or grease it through? That is the most predictable part of the current system.