Permit-tracking system in demand

Pennsylvania has given rights to one of its more head-turning applications to Compaq Computer Corp. so the company can sell it to other states.

Shortly after the state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) debuted eFACTS (www.dep.state.pa.us/efacts), a Web site where people can track the status of environmental permits, officials were bombarded with calls from government techies wondering how they could launch the same thing.

The application stands out because it makes investigating environmental permits — a notoriously difficult chore — something any layman can handle.

Most environment departments separate permits according to air, water or waste, so it had been almost impossible for officials or citizens to look at a property and assess its standing with all permits. Now, eFACTS brings together the once-disparate databases and enables users to search according to such categories as owners, companies or cities.

Pennsylvania's eFACTS is one of only a handful of integrated DEP systems — and it was the first to be put onto the Web so people could use it. In addition to tracking permits, people can check inspections, see if violations are found and determine what companies must do about violations and by what date.

Just a month ago, eFACTS started eNOTICE, a service that enables people to sign up and receive e-mail notification of action on any type of permits they're interested in. More than 1,000 people have signed up.

"It lets the public know what's happening in their back yard," said Kim Nelson, the executive deputy secretary of Pennsylvania's DEP. "There's no other DEP in the country that provides that kind of information to citizens."

Since 1999, when eFACTS hit the World Wide Web, Nelson became so inundated with calls from other governments about the system that she held an open house on it. Representatives from 35 states attended. The clamor for information began to interfere with her job, and that's when she decided to approach Compaq.

Although the state's top officials made it clear that the state wasn't to get into the software-selling business — or make a profit from the application — Nelson was able to cut a deal with the company in which Compaq would take ownership of eFACTS, but Pennsylvania would get $250,000 in Compaq service and maintenance for every sale. Nelson chose Compaq because it was the company DEP originally hired to help develop the system.

"Hopefully this will help sister agencies so they don't have to start from scratch," Nelson said of the deal, announced July 19. Nelson said they would have given the software away for free, but governments need a company like Compaq to set up a system as complex as eFACTS. She compared it to building a house: "It wouldn't be much help if somebody throws a pile of bricks and lumber onto your front lawn."

Sherry Walshak, Compaq's director of state and local government markets, said the eFACTS deal shows that, unlike corporations, governments don't need to compete. "This market is so about collaboration," she said. "It's all about sharing best practices."

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