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Hackers cut red tape of city’s permit operation

Armed with laptops, whiteboards, and enough snacks and beverages to keep them humming through the day, a group of about 60 computer programmers began a hackathon Saturday to improve Boston’s permitting process.

“None of this is sexy,” said Blair Caple, a 55-year-old programmer sitting at a table with another programmer inside District Hall, a steel-clad, one-story building billed as the social hub of the new Innovation District when it opened last year under Mayor Thomas M. Menino. “But the point is that government exists for a reason, to provide these services, and you want these programs to be helpful to citizens.”

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Around him, programmers and bureaucrats, including several responsible for reviewing permits, sat huddled in groups throughout the lounge and in meeting rooms down the hall, putting their heads and computers together to solve kinks in the application process. They scribbled notes on the nearly ubiquitous whiteboards that give District Hall a start-up feel.

Time was short: The programmers had 26 hours, until 2 p.m. Sunday, to come up with proposals.

The HubHacks Permitting Challenge, as the city-sponsored event is called, was organized by the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology and the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics.

The weekend event is part of a wave of civic-minded hacking events in which developers, programmers, data miners, and others with computer expertise work with local governments to bolster their digital programs, said Harlan Weber, a “brigade captain” for the nonprofit Code for Boston.

“We’re able to contribute back to our community, municipal, state governments and nonprofits to make things better,” said Weber, who is serving as a judge at the HubHacks event. “As we go forward, the worlds of software development and government are going to overlap more and more.”

‘These are resources we need to remake the way citizens interact with their government.’

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Weber helped run the Boston site for the National Day of Civic Hacking, a hackathon held in May in more than 100 cities across the country. It is now in its second year.

In Boston, about 100,000 applications for more than 40 different permits are filed annually through the city’s permitting software system, city officials said. But a host of issues hobble it, they say.

Sometimes property addresses on applications don’t match up with those on other city records, or a single project might require multiple permits, unbeknownst to the applicant. Building developers can find it difficult to track their applications process, complicating long-term plans. And some permits, such as the one required to park a moving truck, can’t be filed online, adding weeks to the wait in some cases.

On Saturday, the hackers worked to solve these four issues, specifically as they relate to permits filed with the Boston Fire Department, the Public Works Department, the Boston Transportation Department, and the Inspectional Services Department.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh kicked the day off with a speech on government’s responsibility to use new technology to meet its citizens’ needs.

The current permit process, he said, creates a “system of winners and losers” in which small business owners and home owners are at a disadvantage compared with wealthier and more experienced companies.

“These are resources we need to remake the way citizens interact with their government,” he said.

Throughout the day, city workers walked around and offered their ideas as the groups conferred.

“The one problem everyone is asking is ‘Where?’ ” Paul Taylor, a systems analyst with the Public Works Department, told the group of five programmers tackling the issue of inconsistent addresses.

On the whiteboard behind him, Taylor had drawn a map and a stick figure of a hypothetical Bostonian, John, who couldn’t figure out his correct address.

The programmers agreed that Boston poses particular challenges when it comes to getting addresses right because street names are sometimes repeated throughout its 23 neighborhoods.

Participants will demonstrate their solutions Sunday afternoon, and a winner will be chosen by a panel of judges.

The weekend’s prizes only include HubHacks paraphernalia and bragging rights, but what really matters to these programmers and organizers is to get ideas percolating as the city prepares to request formal proposals for the city’s new online permitting tool on Tuesday.

“The point is to get more people in Boston’s tech community familiar with the issues,” said Matt Mayrl, the city’s deputy chief information officer. “If you get the same people again and again, you’ll get the same results.”

Oliver Ortega can be reached at oliver.ortega@globe.com.
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