Code For America: Ruthie BenDor Shakes Up Business Permitting In Santa Cruz

Code For America Fellows Tackle Municipal Nightmares

Shortly after arriving in Santa Cruz, Calif., Ruthie BenDor decided to get a bicycle permit. It wasn't as easy as she might have hoped.

The permit, which costs $3, required a trip to the finance department at Santa Cruz city hall and filling out a form in triplicate. The finance department is only open four days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. -- hours that most people are at work.

BenDor was frustrated, but instead of being deterred, she started asking questions about why the city needed three identical forms and whether more people would ride bikes if the registration process was digitized.

As a Code For America employee, BenDor along with 25 other technologically inclined “fellows” spread across eight U.S. cities, has been charged with ferreting out problems and inconveniences that could be improved with technology. Making it more convenient to get a bike permit is just one of the challenges BenDor has taken on.

Code For America is an organization that aims to connect technology professionals with city governments in order to tackle problems that overextended or understaffed civic IT departments have been unable to attend to. The organization was founded in 2009 by Jennifer Pahlka with the goal of increasing the transparency of city governments and helping residents become more involved. Once chosen, participants are sent to a city where they have one year to create an app or computer program that helps combat a specific problem.

In 2011, 19 fellows assigned to three cities created 21 apps. This year 26 fellows are working with eight cities: Austin, Texas; Chicago; Detroit; Honolulu; Macon, Ga.; New Orleans; Philadelphia; and Santa Cruz, Calif.

One example of a Code For America project was last year’s Adopt A Hydrant program, developed by fellow Erik Michaels-Ober. Designed to be used during Boston’s harsh winters, the map-based app allows residents to pledge to dig out one of the city’s more than 13,000 fire hydrants after snowstorms.

The technology has since been repurposed by several other cities including Honolulu where, according to BenDor, it's used to replace the batteries in tsunami detectors.

While all Code For America participants have experience working with computers, BenDor said the variety of experience people bring to the program is impressive. The fellows have backgrounds ranging from mapping and usability to graphic design, illustration and conceptual art.

"The breadth is pretty amazing," BenDor said. "It's really nice going to work everyday and realize you're in a room with 25 people who are smarter than you."

BenDor, who is 25, built her first website at age 10 and officially started her career in technology when she was hired by her high school to be the school's webmaster. She was still a student there at the time and can't remember how much she earned per hour, but clearly recalls her favorite perk: She was the only student allowed to park in the staff parking lot.

BenDor went on to study engineering at Boston University, but left after two years to work in IT for non-profits. While working for gay and lesbian advocacy group GLAD, BenDor heard about Code For America and was intrigued.

"I’m motivated to work for a mission, not for-profit necessarily," BenDor said.

BenDor was accepted to CFA and moved to San Francisco in January for training. In February, she headed 75 miles south to her assigned city of Santa Cruz, where she spent a month of "residency" learning all she could about how the city operates.

Santa Cruz, which is nestled on the northern edge of Monterey Bay, is a college town with just under 60,000 residents, according to the 2010 Census. It is the smallest city CFA had ever worked with.

Fellows have a say in where they are placed and BenDor chose Santa Cruz because the city had a well-defined problem and was ready to get started on the solution.

The issue Santa Cruz wanted help with was business permitting. According to the people BenDor spoke with, the permitting system was fragmented and confusing, requiring business owners to speak with people in a minimum of three different departments before getting a permit.

During her month in Santa Cruz, BenDor was tasked with talking to as many people as possible, both residents and members of the local government, to better understand what kind of app she and her team members might build.

In addition to BenDor, the Santa Cruz Code for America team includes Jim Craner, a developer, who, like BenDor, has worked with non-profits, and Tamara Shopsin, a designer and conceptual illustrator. Shopsin is working not only on the permitting project, but also on building a new map for the city hall campus, since people often get lost using the current one. While the business permitting project takes precedence, fellows are encouraged to keep their eyes open for other potential fixes, such as the city hall map or the bike permit project.

After the residency month, the team heads back to San Francisco to get started, with the hope of completing their projects by September to give the cities ample time to test them out before the team finishes its term in November. Since business permitting is obviously not unique to Santa Cruz, BenDor hopes the app will eventually be picked up by other cities.

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