New Orleans: a digital city?

New system allows homeowners to apply for and receive permits online, making the city 15x more efficient, saving contractors and homeowners money, and jumpstarting the rebuilding.

New Orleans city government, just as overwhelmed as its citizens, turned to the Internet to respond to a crushing demand for building permits in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the New York Times reports.

"We had to inspect 110,000 homes in six weeks, and I had nobody to send out to do the inspections," said Greg Meffert, the city's chief technology officer. "There's not exactly a handbook on that."

Mr. Meffert addressed the problem by installing new software on dozens of Internet kiosks set up in public buildings citywide. About 90 days after the August storm passed, the new system was up and running. Now businesses and homeowners can type in the address of the home they need to have rebuilt, and the system does much of the rest.

"That was the lifeblood of the process," Mr. Meffert said. "That allowed us to get going with rebuilding the city."

They new system issues about 625 permits a day, compared to 45 under the old system. And contractors have cut the amount of time they spend applying for permits dramatically. "Now, instead of paying someone to do that for eight hours a week, I have to have someone do it for maybe three hours a month," one builder said.

Homeowners get another break from the new system, Mr. Marino said. Permits for a $90,000 renovation cost contractors about $500, whereas homeowners get them free, which is a posthurricane policy. "So they can get it themselves and not get aggravated at me because they think I'm overcharging," Mr. Marino said. "It helps me get jobs."

This is where the juice is in the emerging B2G (business-to-government) transaction space, says Paul W. Taylor, the chief strategy officer for the Center for Digital Government, a consultant firm in Folsom, Calif.

Over the last two years, in particular, Mr. Taylor said, governments have set up systems in which builders can communicate with city inspectors through wireless Internet devices to process and check the status of field inspection requests.

"That's allowed a huge amount of time and money savings for the building trades, and by extension, homeowners," Mr. Taylor said. "Plus, there's nary a complaint from inspectors being able to spend more time in the field, rather than going back and forth to their computers handling these kinds of requests."

New Orleans' system was built by Accela, a government software provider. "Businesses have really been driven by their experiences with companies like FedEx, U.P.S. and Amazon," said Accela's Maury Blackman. "Just like customers of those companies can see where their packages are at any given moment, businesses want to know exactly whose desk their application is sitting on in City Hall."

Next up: Online review of architectural plans, which could reduce turn-around from six to two months, Blackman says.

All of this puts New Orleans at the front of the pack of digital cities, a surprising turn.

"It's pretty wild getting e-mails from some superhigh-tech cities asking me how we did that, then realizing, 'Wait a minute, I didn't have roads a few months ago,' " Mr. Meffert said. "But it's human nature. A lot of times you don't innovate unless you're forced to, and city halls typically have the luxury of not being forced to innovate."

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