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Code for America: Cracking the Code to Make Governments More Business-Friendly

Written by Amanda Maher

As a small business owner, navigating a city’s permitting department can be grueling. In some cities, an applicant has to apply for permits in more than ten departments! There has to be a way to streamline this process, thought Code for America fellow Jim Craner, Ruthie BenDor and Tamara Shopsin. Together, they built “OpenCounter,” a 24-7 web interface app for business permit applications and tracking—initially launched in Santa Cruz, California in 2012. By removing barriers to entry, OpenCounter, which serves as a “one-stop-shop” for entrepreneurs, has sparked investment in the local economy as more businesses see Santa Cruz as a business-friendly environment.

Founded in 2009, Code for America is a nonprofit whose mission is to address the widening gap between the public and private sector’s use of technology. It began by connecting technology professionals to city governments in order to build open-source applications, and has since evolved to five different programs, including a fellowship and “Brigades,” or teams of civic hackers that take on community challenges. Some have called Code for America the “technology world’s equivalent of the Peace Corps or Teach for America”.

Code for America fellows are cracking the code to civic problems in as little as two months, for what might otherwise take government agencies two years.

After moving through the Code for America accelerator program, the OpenCounter founders turned their app into a full-fledged company. Since then, its founders have also spun out another tool called ZoningCheck, which allows users to move through a four-question process to determine if the business they’re hoping to establish aligns with a municipality’s zoning codes. If so, they’re redirected to OpenCounter to begin the process.

“We’re building tools so that the same level of access to city rules and regulations is there whether you’re Walmart or Joel’s pizza shop,” says co-founder Koht.

With the early success of Code for America’s civic tech fellows, other cities are chomping at the bit to transform the way they approach local economic development.

In Las Vegas, the IT Department and Department of Economic Development enlisted three Code for America fellows to create a system called “Development FastPass”. By utilizing NAICS codes, the app allows business owners to research the optimal site for locating their businesses within city limits. Already, Development FastPass analyzes land use, building occupancy, zoning and business incentive data. The next step is to pair with a real estate company, like Trulia or Zillow, to facilitate the lease or purchase of such properties.

Chosen as a fellowship “city” in 2014, Puerto Rico aimed to reduce its 15% unemployment rate by shedding light on its various business incentive programs. Early research indicated that local entrepreneurs and small business owners did not know what support was available to them in order to stay, invest and grow in Puerto Rico. As a result, many companies left for the U.S. mainland. The development of PrimerPeso allows users to find, identify and apply for the incentives. A follow-on tool, Negocio123, is a step-by-step resource that helps users to incorporate their businesses.

Last month, Code for America announced its next cohort of cities. Among the seven chosen, two are focusing explicitly on local economic development. In Albuquerque, where nearly 30% of the workforce is employed by government, the City seeks to diversify its employment base, and improve information flow about critical information and services. In Miami-Dade College, which the Kauffman Foundation has ranked #1 in the U.S. for entrepreneurial activity, government officials seek to stimulate economic development and improve delivery of regulatory services.

For a relatively modest 50% local match (which can be paid for by the government or through other public/private/foundation donations), Code for America‘s tech entrepreneurs are giving policymakers the tools they need to operate more efficiently in a budget-constrained world. Together, cities continue to pave the path for civic leadership, business development and innovation within the urban core.

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