Sep 06 2022

Electronic Plan Review Can Help Cities Streamline Approval Operations

EPR software reduces time and resources by bypassing paper permit applications.

Thanks to advancements in Wi-Fi and cellular networks, the evolution of Internet of Things technologies and increased cloud computing capabilities, municipalities can now monitor and manage processes such as traffic control, water use and street lighting.

As noted by Forbes, investment in smart cities is expected to double from roughly $410 billion in 2020 to more than $820 billion in 2025. The challenge? Making sure “smart” extends from start to finish.

Consider the Ellinikon development near Athens, Greece, which includes everything from smart water management to IoT-enabled streetlights. The massive amount of planning and the sheer number of permits required for such a project means that if initial operations are bogged down by paper processes or limited digital functionality, the entire effort could suffer.

Electronic plan review (EPR) software can help.

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While the ultimate goal of smart cities is to leverage information and communications technology to improve the lives of citizens and provide economic, social and environmental stability, there’s no shared roadmap to this destination. In his recent work, Leonidas G. Anthopoulos, associate professor in e-business at the University of Thessaly, notes that “depending on ICT and innovation performance, as well as on the local priorities, each city performs differently and appears with alternative smart city forms.”

Meanwhile, when it comes to getting smart cities off the ground, municipal processes are often very similar. Consider the need for building plans and permits. Cities face an operational bottleneck without an effective method in place to submit, review, modify and approve these documents.

What Is Electronic Plan Review Software?

According to Seth Axthelm, co-founder of ERP software provider ePermitHub, “Prior to digital initiatives, this was all done on paper. Cities asked people to provide multiple copies of permit applications and then gave these copies to different reviewers.”

Cities like Tampa, Fla., looked to solve this by allowing digital submissions of permit plans, “but they learned that going digital doesn’t necessarily solve all problems,” Axthelm says. “While small updates and plans are simple, a new hospital might have a really large set of plans, and the city might have hundreds of files uploaded on their end.

“Now, you have a version control issue. It’s hard to keep track of which set of plans is the most current and which set you should be looking at.”

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Whether paper or digital, the goal is to let reviewers complete their work in parallel rather than one after another. The problem? These approaches are only partially parallel. As more reviewers make more notes, versions become fragmented, complexity grows and the time to approval increases.

EPR software adds efficiency to the digital permit process by providing collaborative access and version control. All users with the right permissions can see and edit the same document, and changes to the document are saved concurrently, in turn creating a single source of truth for document review.

“Permit issuing is broken down into two phases. The first is getting approval for plans and the scope of work, and the second is the jurisdiction going out to ensure the approval work is done properly,” Axthelm says.

“EPR software is good for the first phase,” he says. “This includes evaluating plans, examining engineering reports and completing calculations. Any issues can then be clearly communicated back to applicants, such as code issues and how they should be addressed.”

How Does EPR Software Benefit Local Government Agencies?

For Tampa, which chose ePermitHub to help build out their ePlan room, EPR software integration offered two key benefits.

First was simplicity. “Tampa had been digital for three to four years when we started talking to them,” Axthelm says. “They were emailing the file out with tracked changes turned on, then they made edits and appended files. As a result, you could have five different copies and have to reconcile them into a master copy. Our Digital Plan Room turned this into a Microsoft Office 365 / Google Docs experience by removing complexity and automating the document management side of it.”

Speed was also a key benefit. To demonstrate authenticity, approved documents often contain a physical seal that represents the approval of an architect, engineer or other professional. By moving to a digital seal and signature model, these professionals could digitally approve plans, rather than taking the time to print, seal and mail them.

Now, you have a version control issue. It’s hard to keep track of which set of plans is the most current and which set you should be looking at.”

Seth Axthelm Co-Founder, ePermitHub

Are Digital Seals and Signatures a Security Risk?

Axthelm says there is a distinct difference between electronic and digital signatures. While the terms are often used interchangeably, they represent different processes. Electronic signatures allow users to virtually sign a document with a computer-generated representation of their signature.

Digital seals and signatures are different. “Professionals must go out and get a digital certificate from a third-party certificate authority that they can download or that is mailed on a thumb drive,” Axthelm says. “These certificates can then be used to create signatures or seals. This typically isn’t a visible mark but rather a cryptographic ‘hash’ on the document.”

EPR software is then used to evaluate and confirm these signatures, providing peace of mind to city officials that plans have been properly evaluated.

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What Should Cities Consider Before Adopting EPR?

Before adopting an EPR solution to help manage permit evaluation and approval, Axthelm says it’s important for cities to have some type of digital process in place. In many cases, this is an enterprise resource planning tool that provides a basic framework for sharing and managing documents.

In part, this is because making the move from paper processes directly to EPR can be a significant shift for any city, and it’s best to establish solid digital practices first. Many EPR tools are also cloud-based, Software as a Service offerings, meaning they’re designed to layer on top of existing deployments rather than acting as stand-alone solutions.

As a result, cities are often best served by bringing in prospective providers to evaluate current processes and suggest customized solutions.

Cities aren’t truly smart until intelligence extends from administrative and approval processes all the way to design, consultation and deployment. EPR software makes it possible for municipalities to create planning rooms capable of streamlining permit requests without compromising security.

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