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Set Up Shop in Santa Cruz

Peter Koht is the Economic Development Coordinator for the City of Santa Cruz.


The City of Santa Cruz is the smallest community to ever partner with Code for America, but it had one of the largest problems to solve: how to make it easier to take an idea for a small business from conception to reality.

It’s a problem that all communities face, large and small, and it took a tremendous amount of research, collaboration, and talent to create an online permitting portal, which we’ve named OpenCounter. We’re officially launching it this Wednesday, January 9, after an intense year of development, testing, and refinement.

OpenCounter reduces the confusion of starting a business by creating an online experience that helps small business owners discover the City forms, fees, and time needed to set up shop — and apply for them online in a single web session by visiting the City’s website.

This was no easy feat.  The effort included normalizing a complex zoning code into a database, categorizing 296 different kinds of businesses, and discovering the requirements that each type needed — in each neighborhood. It included making that complicated process invisible to the user and avoiding drowning them in bureaucratic minutiae.

It also had to load quickly and reliably, not request redundant information, and provide encouragement along the way.

An effort led by our three dedicated fellows — Team Santa Cruz: Tamara Shopsin (designer extraordinaire and lead on the project’s MVP), Jim Craner (backend and systems administration), and Ruthie BenDor (front end / content management). The project ended up taking contributions of time and code from a good number of the 2012 fellows, including Mick Thompson, Rob Brackett, Alex Yule, Diana Tran, Aurelio Tinio and Serena Wales, who all contributed code and feedback to the core team.

Two contributors, Philip Hale (who joined the project initially as a Google Summer of Code intern) and Joel Mahoney, a 2011 CfA fellow who’s now Code for America’s tech evangelist, deserve special thanks for getting OpenCounter up and ready to help entrepreneurs realize their dreams.

Philip managed to normalize 26 different subcategories of parking requirements and memorized the City’s rather complicated rules for “impact fees” to bring them online. Working nine hours ahead of us, from Aberdeen, Scotland, he’d commit new code almost every night, all expertly commented and fully functional by the time we woke up on the West Coast.

Joel joined the project late in the game, and without his patience, leadership skills, and expert Rails knowledge, we would have never finished the application. Working on OpenCounter in addition to his already pressing workload prepping for the 2013 fellowship class, he got this app ready to ship.

Not only did he get all the core functions resolved logically, he added many complex features (user accounts for different types of users, information portability, dynamically serving requirements) that we thought we’d never get done. In short, he’s a bit of a quiet genius.

OpenCounter represents Code for America at its best. It was a complicated project that took true team effort and ingenuity to solve. It challenged everyone involved, from City staff to the CfA fellows and utilized feedback from users and allies constantly throughout the year. In the end the repository on GitHub had more than 780 commits. We’re excited to work with other communities to utilize this code for their small business owners.

Most importantly, this effort solved the problem that we set out to tackle when we applied to Code for America in 2011. “Permitting a small business is a normal occurrence for government, but a rare and extraordinary thing for an entrepreneur,” says our mayor, Hilary Bryant. “Thanks to Code for America, we’ve been able to develop a web application that gets shops and stores open sooner, allowing entrepreneurs to focus on what their best at — innovating and investing in Santa Cruz.”

Santa Cruz’s partnership with Code for America was supported by a number of generous donations from the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County, the Cities of Scotts Valley, Capitola, Los Gatos, and Watsonville and the Silicon Valley Economic Development Alliance.


Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.