Tag Archives: code for america

Santa Cruz’s innovative Open Counter platform going national with Knight grant

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Cowell’s Beach is a great place to start.

Santa Cruz is proving itself to be a leading center for twenty-first century e-government. The latest endorsement came from the Knight Foundation today, which announced it was giving a $450,000 award to the Open Counter project. It was one of only eight winners, out of 860 applicants, of the Knight News Challenge on Open Gov.

Led by Peter Koht, an economic development staffer with the City of Santa Cruz, the Open Counter initiative was originally backed by Code for America, a private foundation that bills itself as a Peace Corps for geeks. A team of CfA fellows worked with Peter last year to build a one stop, online system for starting a new business in Santa Cruz. It walks entrepreneurs through permits, licensing, employment issues, zoning, taxes and fees, and more. What might have taken several visits to different city department over a few days can now be done in minutes.

The Knight Foundation grant will be used to fund the expansion of Open Counter to more cities, including some where CfA fellows are already at work. Peter has been tapped to lead that effort, and was honored today during the MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although his public sector career has been relatively short – less than five years – he’s been involved in several digital governance projects, including serving as policy lead for the Central Coast Broadband Consortium and as an advisor to Civinomics, a Santa Cruz-based online platform for town hall meetings.

The original idea was to keep people in town and thin the morning commute to Silicon Valley. Looks like the traffic jam will be heading the other way.

Santa Cruz virtually cuts red tape

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Starting a business is hard work and a lot of fun. And then there’s the stuff that isn’t much fun and is mind numbing rather than difficult. Navigating the maze of local regulations and permits usually falls into this middle ground.

The City of Santa Cruz has a twenty first century answer to this problem, called OpenCounter. It’s a website where you can enter a few quick facts about yourself and your new business, and then it’ll get into the necessary details.

You can take a good look at the process, albeit it at a beta level. It’ll tell you if the type of business you’re planning is allowed at the location you want to put it. Then it’ll walk you through use and building permits, parking standards, a business license and some other requirements such as a fictitious name statement.

Not all the features are up and running yet. Things like traffic impact fees, utilities and environmental health and safety are still to come. But you’ll get the flavor of it.

The processes themselves haven’t been streamlined or otherwise updated. The idea behind the project was to try to figure out how to make the best of a complex, legacy system.

“The interface proposed has a lot in common with TurboTax, simplifying the interface between small business owners and City Hall. We’re using technology to make government more efficient, transparent and easier to work with for small business owners.” Mayor Ryan Coonerty

The muscle behind the project came from Code for America, which calls itself a “peace corps for geeks.” Smart, young programmers dedicated a year of their time to building this open source application, in the hopes that it’ll be adopted and adapted by cities and counties all across the country.

The City of Santa Cruz backed it with staff, most notably Peter Koht from the economic development team, and some cash. And, most importantly, the cooperation of the people and departments involved. It gives hope that entrepreneurs will get the same in Santa Cruz.