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OpenCounter: Code for America and Santa Cruz strike permitting gold

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. From a concept to a permit.

They created an online permitting portal OpenCounter. The portal launched last Wednesday January 9, after an intense year of development, testing, and refinement. So how did they do it?

Peter Koht is an economic development coordinator for the City of Santa Cruz. He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program how the program works.

How it Works.

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,” said Koht.

Why it Matters.

“We get folks who don’t know where to start. We walk them through getting a planning permit, filling for a business license, meeting special requirements. We wanted to put some of those functions and put them online as a force multiplier. The information is accessible 24/7. We help people navigate some very confusing regulatory structures without having to read and learn the municipal code. This system does not replace humans or human interactions,” said Koht.

Fail Elegantly

“One of the key requirements is to fail elegantly, so that when you come to a point where you try use in a location that is not allowable by the code or you come to a point where the app can no longer follow through with logic you get a human to help. It’s not a dead end when the technology fails,” said Koht.

OpenCounter from Code for America on Vimeo.


“The apps will not actually give you a permit. It does not accept cash. We also constrained the use apps for home offices and in exisitng buildings,” said Koht.

Why Small Businesses?

“OpenCounter was specifically designed for small business owners because more than half of the 46,000 businesses licenses are held by firms with less than 10 employees,” said Koht.

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