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Platform helps city workers automate government processes

Stephen Corwin got the idea for CityGrows from watching his home town of Los Angeles evolve around him. The changes in the city’s landscape were always a surprise, said Corwin, the company’s CEO and founder.

“How come I didn’t know this was about to happen?" he asked himself. "How come my neighborhood is changing and I’m not involved with that process?”

To make development and construction in the city more transparent, Corwin built an application that opened city permitting data to the public. The city was releasing the information on PDF documents at the time, a process that Corwin called “sort of public.” A web scraper automatically downloaded these documents and plugged the addresses from the documents into a geocoder that “would plot, in a much more consumable fashion, the data we were collecting on a map.”

After the initial feedback, he realized the app wasn’t reaching the people who really needed the information -- the city workers.

“The problem is not figuring out how to merge all of that data together into a single database,” he said. It was giving people who actually work in government a better way to collect and surface that data. 

And that’s exactly what CityGrows now does. It is a cloud-based workflow platform that lets users create “processes” for common tasks, like filing applications or submitting information – tasks that are usually done on paper, in person or by visiting multiple websites.

Using CityGrows, government employees can create their own process to facilitate workflow. An automated process can be created so that people can apply for permits online where they are reviewed by staff and approved or denied, for example. Automatic notifications are sent to staff or applicants when action is needed to keep the process on track.

Santa Monica, Calif., one of the first cities to use the platform, has two processes set up for paperwork that employers must submit: One is a four-step process for filing annual emissions reduction plans, the other a 10-step process helps employers file their worksite transportation plans.

The public can track the progress of any processes on CityGrows on a dashboard. The system notifies users -- both government and non-government -- where a task is on its timeline toward completion and who is responsible for completing the current step.

By default, anyone can see these processes (they can be switched to private). The processes can also be copied and modified by other cities that want to implement similar systems on the platform. CityGrows, Corwin said, aims to become the “GitHub of government processes.”

The application is free for cities to use, but CityGrows charges a transaction fee on any monetary exchanges that happen through it. Catherine Geanuracos, the COO and founder of CityGrows, said the free price is important for getting smaller cities on board.

“The smaller your government gets, the less likely you are to be able to afford and or manage a stand-alone open data portal,” she said. “We really feel like even the smallest government should be able to have some component of their data be open.”

Stand-alone open data platforms can be helpful tools, Corwin said, but they can also be underutilized because of the work involved with keeping them populated with new data, which often results in delays. But when the open data platform and the government processes are held within the same application, it makes it more streamlined, he said.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at mleonard@gcn.com or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.


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