Cities get business trends insights from online permitting apps

Cities get business trends insights from online permitting apps

While the 2008 financial crisis slowed the growth of the government workforce, it also helped create incentives to build new ways to spur future economic development. 

That was one of the goals of Open Counter Enterprises Inc., launched to help prospective business owners navigate the complexities and costs of addressing the jumble of local government permits and fees needed to open even a small business in most U.S. cities.

The firm developed a set of tools to help entrepreneurs track the process of obtaining licenses to open a restaurant and other small businesses, which could run to tens of thousands of dollars and require filing up to 20 to 40 permits.

The process is even more challenging in bigger cities where agencies often aren’t well coordinated and may lose sight of the end users’ experience in getting a business registered.

“The name Open Counter is a nod to the fact that after the financial crisis, a lot of governments really had to cut back on staff and resources, which meant that the counter, so to speak, might be open only four days a week, 8 a.m. to noon,” co-founder and CEO Joel Mahoney said.

The firm has over 30 clients including the cities of Orlando, Fla., San Diego, and Charlotte, N.C.

“We’re trying to design for the citizen experience, which we feel is too often lost when you start to design for your customer,” Mahoney said. “It’s easy to lose sight of this last link -- which is the citizen in this case.”

While the tools are set up to guide license seekers, they are also generating data that is helping cities gain previously unknown insights into their local economies, according to Mahoney.

For instance, ZoningCheck, an exploratory tool that is used prior to the permit application process, can yield demand and demographics data from license applicants that previously had escaped notice.

“If you are trying to open a restaurant in an area that isn’t zoned for restaurants -- historically that interest was never really recorded,” Mahoney said. “So all of a sudden we’re giving cities a view into interests in their communities they might not even be aware of.”

The results might be relevant to city planners, who are looking for ways to generate more significant data about their economies. It helps them answer questions such as: “What does it mean that all these restaurants are trying to open in the old rail yard district? Shouldn’t we reconsider some of our zoning restrictions in this area? Is our city changing?”

Looking ahead, Open Counter is spending a lot of time thinking about how to encode zoning and permitting rules in a “way that’s easy to set up, easy to maintain and easy to change,” Mahoney said, adding that “in order to make it very simple for the end user, we make it very complicated for ourselves.”

About the Author

Paul McCloskey is senior editor of GCN. A former editor-in-chief of both GCN and FCW, McCloskey was part of Federal Computer Week's founding editorial staff.

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