Can Accela’s “Civic Cloud” Turn City Bureaucrats Into Heroes?

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take a picture of the trash, choose from a drop-down menu, and say why they didn’t pick it up. It seems so basic, but those types of services are almost unheard of in places like El Paso.”

Blackman, a former U.S. Army artillery officer and longtime triathlete and ultra-marathoner, joined Accela in 2000 as vice president of sales and marketing, and became CEO in 2007. He says the original idea for the company came from the founders’ frustrations with the land-use permitting process.

“One of the challenges at the time was that the departments that were in charge of land development and permits were all disconnected,” Blackman says. “You’d submit your plan and it would go into this black hole. But as a developer you need to plan your spend. When should I be talking about grading the land? When should I have contractors on site? If you have no idea what’s going on in government, you have no idea how to plan your own workflow.” The same kinds of problems can crop up for an entrepreneur trying to open a restaurant, or a homeowner planning an addition.

While land development was the original use case, Accela built its system from the start to be flexible. A basic data element stored in its cloud database could correspond to a building permit with a permit number, a piece of land with a parcel number, or a person with a fishing-license number. “We knew we wanted to do more than just managing building permits,” Blackman says. “We wanted to be an enterprise system for governments, with licensing, permits, assets, and all the rest.”

This early decision opened the way for Accela to offer its current variety of specialized, subscription-based modules, serving practically every state government or City Hall office from health inspectors to professional licensing boards. The IQM2 acquisition, for example, gets the company into the legislative management business, helping city councils and county and state agency boards build meeting agendas and publish minutes on the Web. The Envista technology, meanwhile, lets cities coordinate access to the public utility right-of-way underneath streets and sidewalks—starting with accurate maps of what’s there and schedules for digging it up. “I’m sure you’ve seen one company cutting up a piece of sidewalk, and then two weeks later someone else is cutting up the same piece,” Blackman says. “They aren’t coordinated. This is what our platform will help with.”

For all the talk in Washington and statehouses across the country about “open government” and the importance of making public data archives free, complete, accessible, and machine-readable, citizens don’t see much benefit from this data until someone, usually a technology company, comes along with a way to aggregate and manage it. (See, for example, the story of Google’s efforts to systematize data from public transit agencies.) The idea of the civic cloud is in its early stages, but it’s still a big improvement that you can go online in an Accela customer city like Palo Alto and check on the status of your building permit—or, for that matter, your neighbor’s.

“One of the big challenges with government is they are resource-constrained,” Blackman says. “They have too much work to do and not enough time to do it, and they don’t know how to make people happy. We want to help them reinvent things through technology. If we can get government to understand and engage with citizens, they can be heroes in their communities.”

Here’s a video from Accela on how the City of Palo Alto is using its tools.

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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