Illustration by Caetano Santos
Illustration by Caetano Santos

At a launch party on Jan. 9 at local internet provider Cruzio’s downtown headquarters, a handful of local programmers unveiled OpenCounter — a free online system designed to simplify the hurdles of applying for business permits in the greater Santa Cruz area.

To develop the web-based application, the county of Santa Cruz has been in a yearlong partnership with Code for America. This San Francisco-based organization encourages social participation by organizing local groups of civic technologists to take action in their communities.

Three Santa Cruz programmers were chosen from an applicant pool of hundreds to receive a stipend from Code for America and create OpenCounter, based on their technical prowess and the potential that Santa Cruz’s economy offers for small businnesses.

“OpenCounter is set to change the face of small business in Santa Cruz,” said Mayor Hilary Bryant during the Jan. 9 presentation.

Santa Cruz’s economy is made up of 4,500 businesses, over half of which are companies with 10 or fewer employees. OpenCounter’s mission is to simplify and standardize the process of stimulating the local economy by enabling entrepreneurs.

To do that, the application cuts through industry jargon and red-tape technicalities, two primary stumbling blocks for prospective business owners. OpenCounter also allows entrepreneurs access to knowledgable live support throughout the permit process.

“[OpenCounter] offers built-in cost calculators and permit estimations for any business, from opening an Olympic swimming pool to a storefront downtown,” said Peter Koht, OpenCounter team member and Santa Cruz Economic Development Coordinator.

Prospective business owners need a few pieces of information to access the program’s calculators — the general location, managerial data, and the nature of one’s proposed business. OpenCounter’s database of over 300 business-templates allows budding entrepreneurs to gauge and anticipate economic possibilities from one location to another in a uniform procedure.

At the end of the OpenCounter process, the application then forwards prospective owners to real individuals with access to the permits in question, via either smartphone or standard browser access. Code for America also provides live technical support throughout the application process.

“Government now works at the speed of citizenship,” said Jennifer Pahlka, the founder and executive director for Code for America at Wednesday’s panel.

Code for America has provided stipends for similar projects in metropolitan centers around the nation, such as Boston, Chicago and New York. Santa Cruz is the smallest township to receive a stipend from Code for America.

The partnership between Santa Cruz and Code for America was further supported during the past year by donations from the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County, the cities of Scotts Valley, Watsonville and Los Gatos, and the Silicon Valley Economic Development Alliance.