On the road to a complete economic recovery, US cities need all the help they can get. Many are finding this help, in the form of technology, can give them an edge by:
- Streamlining workflows to reduce the strain on time-strapped municipal employees
- Reducing paperwork and physical file storage to save money and make data more accessible
- Providing tools to analyze existing data and make smarter decisions
- Making it easier to do business in their cities
Mobile technologies especially have made it easier – and more cost-effective – than ever for cities to do better work.
Streamlining zoning codes in Boston, Massachusetts
Bringing new businesses into a city is a good thing. Along with the increase in tax revenues, businesses can be a powerful tool to combat economic slump – creating jobs, investing in city infrastructure, and bringing new life to depressed neighborhoods.
The problem is, all too often archaic zoning codes and bureaucratic red tape provide a powerful deterrent for new businesses. The process can be frustrating– but fortunately new technologies are coming into play to help cities streamline the process of disseminating information about zoning requirements.
Take the city of Boston, for example.
Boston’s zoning code isn’t light beach reading – it’s currently held in three volumes, and tops out at about 3000 pages. So it’s no surprise that most Boston business license applicants aren’t too familiar with it.
A new tool launched last June, Boston ZoningCheck, allows business owners to quickly search zoning regulations based on the type of business they want to start or the area they want open in. After answering a series of questions, users are shown to an interactive map to help them now down their location. This makes it easier to take the first steps in opening a new business or expanding an existing one.
ZoningCheck is a tool built by OpenCounter, a Code for America Accelerator company that creates tools designed to help city support local economic development. ZoningCheck was launched in 2014, and provides a simple way to not only look up zoning regulations, but users can apply for a business license through the app.
The City of Boston hopes that these new tools will help make the process of starting a business easier, which in turn will help create more jobs and increase tax revenue for the City. Along with using ZoningCheck, the City also made common Fire Department permits available online, and launched a Permit Finder application which allows applicants to see whether permits are in the process, and gives contact information so that applicants can connect with the right person if they have questions.
Surveying valuable resources in Alexandria, Virginia
While bringing in new business is a great thing, cities also need to take stock of the resources they already have. Traditional surveying methods and paper data repositories are often inefficient and time-consuming to use. Information about historic sites, buildings, and districts may be logged safely and securely in a file cabinet, but there it’s inaccessible to people who may be able to make good use of it.
The City of Alexandria is rich with historical resources – their Old and Historic District is the third oldest locally-designated district in the country – but surveying them all was an expensive proposition. Faced with budget restrictions and minimal staffing, the City knew they didn’t have the resources for a traditional data collection survey.
To tackle this problem, the City used in GIS to create a centralized database that can be accessed globally, and updated in real time. Surveyors were able to select the target building on their screen, and use a series of pulldown menus to log data about it. Upon completion, the status of the building was automatically updated for other surveyors in the field and city staff back in the office. Surveyors could also collect photographs and recording, which are automatically connected with the personal information.
Using GIS and mobile devices, the City of Alexandria was able to take stock of its valuable historic assets, while saving money and time over the paper-based processes they had once used.
Plus, now that the information is stored digitally, it’s accessible for historians and for people in the neighborhood – and it makes it easier for city officials to make smarter decisions about their historical resources.
The technologies for municipal government are rapidly evolving, and cities that take advantage of them are coming out ahead. If your city is looking to emulate how Boston made it's zoning information accessible on demand and streamline the zoning application process, GovPilot can help.